Foothill program opens doors for more than its students

New biomedical engineering program offers innovations to children with disabilities

The desk was covered with deceptively simple items: thick, easy-to-grasp silicone stands that hold toothbrushes, bright red pencil grips and a set of whimsical purple pencil grips shaped like curly fries.

The child-like items are far from simple, however: Designed and produced over many months by two Foothill College students, they're the products of a biomedical device engineering program that is breaking new ground for the two-year community college.

In one of the five new biomedical engineering classes Foothill now offers, students were tasked with an open-ended project: Design a handle for a child with disabilities, inspired by a need for a toothbrush handle for a child patient at the school's dental hygiene clinic. Unexpectedly, that academic assignment has reached beyond the classroom and into the real world to help local children.

Both the biomedical engineering program and this project are rare for a two-year community college like Foothill, where students typically go to catch up on credits or stop as a transition between high school or a job and a four-year university.

"It's not very typical for a community college to do projects like this," said Oxana Pantchenko, a Foothill engineering professor who developed and is now leading the new program. "Usually it's about class work -- completing your classes, transferring, doing your thing -- but if you can get your hands dirty prior to transferring or getting your degree while, in the meantime, helping out thousands of others," the better, she said.

Foothill student Marcela Puerta, who's been interested in medicine since she was a child, said she appreciated the opportunity to not only be creative and explore a career interest but have a direct impact on a child's life.

"It's something that's relevant that we can put on our resumes versus a regular job like a Starbucks job or a restaurant job. Those are OK, but they don't give you that much more push," she said. "It's fulfilling because we're helping children."

Puerta spent all of winter quarter designing and producing the 3-D-printed grips, starting by drafting models on paper or a whiteboard before moving to 3-D-design software. Despite the end results' apparent simplicity, it took many, many iterations to get it exactly right, she said.

With a donation from Joe Goodman, a former professor and dean at the Stanford School of Engineering who now serves on Foothill's Science Learning Institute Advisory Board, 100 of the handles Puerta and another student, Michelle Le, made in their class this year will be donated to California Children's Services (CCS). That state program provides diagnostic and treatment services, medical case management and physical and occupational therapy services to children and youth under 21 with medical conditions like cystic fibrosis, cerebral palsy, heart disease and cancer. CCS of Santa Clara County operates a medical therapy program at Juana Briones Elementary School in Palo Alto.

Occupational therapists at multiple local California Children's Services sites will be able to use the handles to work one-on-one with patients with grasping disabilities.

After connecting with California Children's Services, several occupational therapists asked Pantchenko and her students if they could work on another much-needed item, which has become the Foothill team's summer project.

Children with arthrogryposis multiplex congenita (AMC) are born with joints that have become permanently fixed in a bent or straightened position, restricting movement of that joint. If an elbow is affected, for example, the child might not be able to lift the arm. Muscles can also remain underdeveloped as a result. The severity of the condition ranges, but it can affect a child's shoulders, elbows, wrists, hands, hips, knees and feet.

One aid that was created to help children with AMC is a metal exoskeleton, called WREX, that uses resistance bands to mimic the movement of joints. But the exoskeleton is bulky and only works when attached to a wheelchair or chair. One "arm" costs $2,000, Pantchenko said.

An improvement on the exoskeleton was created with 3-D-printed plastic arms that attach to a more flexible plastic vest, meaning the child can not only move joints but also run and play more freely. But Magic Arms, which produces the new product, is completely overloaded with the demand and couldn't help California Children's Services patients.

So CCS turned to Pantchenko, who enlisted Puerta and Andres Camelo, a Foothill graduate with a background in science and mechanical engineering who now works at the community college as a 3-D printing and prototype development lab technician. Puerta designed the model, with input from Pantchenko and Camelo, and Camelo oversaw the printing process. He advised Puerta on what would and wouldn't work with the Stratasys printer, which layers sheet after sheet of gel. One iteration of the arm took 23 hours to print.

Camelo himself wore a similar exoskeleton vest for several years after breaking his back when he was younger, so he understands the need to create a more lightweight, flexible device, he said.

The challenge was to create a single device that is printed in one fell swoop, requiring no assembly. Puerta and Camelo had to tweak their design so each part could print within the next, supplemented by softer support material that they would later wash away with water, leaving the hard, cured plastic of the exoskeleton arm.

"That's something that's completely impossible to do with metal, completely impossible to do with lots of materials," Pantchenko said.

3-D printing has completely revolutionized the field of biomedical engineering, enabling everything from 3-D-printed bone replacements to implants to printed versions of patients' organs that their surgeons can practice on before an actual surgery.

Foothill acquired several 3-D printers about a year and a half ago and has continued to add to a state-of-the-art lab that is not only used by students but is also now open to the public. Anyone can submit a design and specifications to Pantchenko, who will review it, offer a quote for payment and then print the item.

In this open-source spirit, the students' exoskeleton design will be posted on the Foothill website this fall for anyone with access to a 3-D printer to use, free of charge. Pantchenko said there are more than 500,000 children with AMC who could use such a device -- which, compared to the WREX arm, only costs $100 to print. The design can also easily be enlarged as a child grows, Pantchenko said.

Foothill modeled its new biomedical engineering program after the closest community college they could find that offered something similar, in Minnesota. The Foothill program offers classes on five topics: introduction to biomedical device engineering, design and manufacturing, medical device regulations, quality assurance and documentation. Speakers from the industry and academia have given guest lectures; and students were connected with local organizations for internships, such as the Hanger Clinic, a longtime national orthotics and prosthetics company with a location in Mountain View, and the Fogarty Institute for Innovation, a medical device and therapy innovation center based at El Camino Hospital in Mountain View.

Thirty students enrolled the first year of the program.

Foothill also has an agreement with Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo's biomedical engineering program -- one of the nation's top undergraduate programs -- so students who come out of Foothill can transfer to Cal Poly without repeating any courses.

The ongoing exoskeleton project was an additional, unanticipated internship. Puerta and Camelo are continuing to work this summer to customize the device for a young boy with AMC who is a patient at California Children's Services in San Jose. (Inspired by his current obsession with Spiderman, his exoskeleton will be designed to look like its covered in spiderwebs.) Two more AMC patients have been identified and will also receive the redesigned exoskeleton, on top of the CCS patients with varying physical disabilities who will benefit from the 100 donated handles.

What is community worth to you?
Support local journalism.


3 people like this
Posted by jerry99
a resident of Barron Park
on Jul 24, 2015 at 11:29 am

Are you kidding me? A Biomedical Engineering program for a junior college with most students taking two years of remedial high school courses to enroll in the junior college classes? The ultimate ego trip.
Oh yes, I forgot that Bill Gates did not graduate college, that must be it.

27 people like this
Posted by to jerry99
a resident of Greenmeadow
on Jul 24, 2015 at 1:33 pm

Dear jerry99. You are completely out of touch. Students who graduate from local high schools with 3.8 GPAs and great SATs can't get into UC schools any more. They are opting for community college because it is viewed as an affordable stepping stone into the UCs (which may or may not be true any more). This is an affordable option for terrific students of middle class parents.

These kids deserve a chance while the UCs are giving subsidized slots to students from around the world who pay higher tuition. UC facilities were built with our tax dollars. Students from out-of-state are NOT paying the full cost of their UC education. They should be paying private school tuition rates in order to give the all benefits of tax subsidies to deserving in-state students.

Before you comment, educate yourself about what today's students are dealing with--a highly competitive process to get into four-year state schools. The world has changed a lot since you were in school.

19 people like this
Posted by They Lie
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jul 24, 2015 at 2:24 pm

The UCs lie. They are SUPPOSED to accept students from community colleges, but often refuse to, even if they have room. Berkeley, UCLA and Davis are the worst.

Janet Napolitano made it clear last year that foreign students who pay more money have first priority now. Community college grads, no matter how good their grades, and high school grads with less than a 4.5 gpa are left holding their collective breath while crossing their fingers.

2 people like this
Posted by Marie
a resident of Midtown
on Jul 24, 2015 at 2:55 pm

Marie is a registered user.

Back in the day, I attended UCSB for my first two years of college (I finished up at Berkeley) and happened to work in the Admissions Office as a work-study student. When the Admissions Director looked the academic GPA of juniors who were at UCSB for the first two years vs. those who transferred in from community colleges, the transfers had a higher GPA. I don't know if this is still the case, but community college transfers are certainly competitive with those admitted as Freshmen. Academically, Foothill and DeAnza have a very good reputation for preparing students for competitive four year colleges, and if they meet certain academic metrics, are guaranteed admission to a UC or Cal State University. It is a great alternative today, as it was for my four brothers and sisters, for good students who don't have the financial resources for four years of residential colleges. They all went on to four year colleges and two went on for advanced degrees, despite parents who did not go to college. We all ended up in successful professional careers.

If you want to minimize college loans, California community colleges are a great resource. I was fortunate enough to get scholarships to go away, but attended community college during the summer for a couple years to be able to take more electives. While the classes weren't as competitive, the teaching was outstanding and as good, and in one case much better, than my classes at UCSB. Berkeley was in a class by itself, and I will always be glad I had the opportunity to graduate from UCB. Go Bears.

8 people like this
Posted by Lulu
a resident of Los Altos
on Jul 24, 2015 at 5:07 pm

what is the matter with you people? This sounds like a wonderful program, just the type of hands on vocational and college program kids need. Why do you have to turn it into a negative discussion about college admissions and out of state or foreign students?.

8 people like this
Posted by Dear Lulu
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jul 24, 2015 at 6:23 pm

Dear Lulu,

I bet you don't have kids applying for college right now. People who are upset about this are not "trolls." They are people who are struggling to cough up the necessary $60,000/year for private schools because our tax-funded UCs choose higher paying out-of-state students over excellent in-state students (whose parents have been paying taxes for decades with the expectation we were maintaining a public education system that would serve tax-paying state residents).

I think we acknowledged that the community colleges are doing good things. Read more carefully before you start name calling.

4 people like this
Posted by College-Parent
a resident of Los Altos
on Jul 24, 2015 at 10:50 pm

Here is my analysis for my student:
Foothill College students who transfer into a UC, the cost savings is considerably, $52,466 per student. For example:
Cost UC Davis (2 years): 2 x $30,893 = $61,786
Cost for transfer degree: $9,320 + $61,786 = $71,106
Foothill (2 years) + UCD (2 years)
Cost for 4 years at UCD: 4 x $30,893 = $123,572
Cost Savings
UCD (4 years) – (Foothill (2 years) & UCD (2 years)):
$123,572 - $71,106 = $52,466

Found on UC Website:
In the last 4 years, 235 Foothill students transferred and 185 of those students will graduate in total of 4 years (2 years Foothill + 2 years UC). This total cost saving for this group of students is 185 students x $52,466 = $9,706,210

Like this comment
Posted by Parent
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Jul 25, 2015 at 2:37 am

[Post removed.]

Like this comment
Posted by Jon Castor
a resident of Woodside
on Jul 25, 2015 at 12:02 pm

Wonderful! "With a donation from Joe Goodman, a former professor and dean at the Stanford School of Engineering who now serves on Foothill's Science Learning Institute Advisory Board, 100 of the handles Puerta and another student, Michelle Le, made in their class this year will be donated to California Children's Services (CCS)."

Like this comment
Posted by Kristi
a resident of Portola Valley
on Jan 11, 2016 at 8:48 am

This is wonderful to develop devices for those children and adults who have difficulty using their limbs due to having a disease. It's not easy to live life with the difficulty of brushing their teeth, eating with a fork and holding a cup. My dad had ALS-(Lou Gehrigs disease) in which you can loose your ability to move your arms and hold items in your fingers. Lets also keep in mind neuropathy of the hands after chemotherapy. These newly developed devices can be used for many diseases and help patients with their daily living.

Thank you to Oxan Pantchenko at Foothill College and donors for these wonderful new biomedical/stem classes. Cheers to helping children and adults live life to the fullest despite their disease! Keep putting finances and resources into these programs to help the less fortunate people in this world who just happened to get these awful diseases!

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

Stay informed

Get daily headlines sent straight to your inbox.

After experiencing harassment, owner of Zareen's restaurants speaks out about Islamophobia, racism
By Elena Kadvany | 28 comments | 6,923 views

Don't Miss Your Exit (and other lessons from an EV drive)
By Sherry Listgarten | 13 comments | 2,345 views

Goodbye Food Waste!
By Laura Stec | 5 comments | 2,238 views

Premarital and Couples: Tips for Hearing (Listening) and Being Known
By Chandrama Anderson | 0 comments | 743 views

Is racism also a local problem?
By Diana Diamond | 16 comments | 422 views


Register today!

​On Friday, October 11, join us at the Palo Alto Baylands for a 5K walk, 5K run, 10K run or half marathon! All proceeds benefit local nonprofits serving children and families.

Learn More