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Duke engineers rank second in contest to help disabled workers

Duke engineers are developing ways to implement class assignments into the community.

A team of three recent Duke graduates received $5,000 for placing second in the Ability One Design Challenge, a national competition that encourages creative solutions to help disabled people in the workforce. Their project entry, dubbed “The Cutting Edge”, is a device that allows individuals with disabilities to safely cut large spools of thin metal. The cutting allows any employee, even those with limited body movement, to complete job requirements of Orange Enterprises, a community rehabilitation program in Hillsborough, N.C. that employs people with disabilities.

The members of the team—Tom Backeris, Vivek Patel and Eric Yuan—met Spring 2012, their final semester in the Pratt School of Engineering, in the course Biomedical Engineering 460, “Devices for People with Disabilities,” in which students design and build projects that will improve the lives of the disabled.

“[The faculty] make sure students take control over the direction of their project,” said their instructor Kevin Caves, director of the Rehabilitation Research Center on Communication Enhancement. “The course is designed around stepping through the refinement of the problem.”

Other college finalists include the United States Military Academy at West Point—which came in first place—and Ohio University—which came in third.

Duke has placed second in the Ability One Design competition in the previous two years as well, Caves said.

The students initially approached the project as a class assignment to increase the mobility of a 65-year-old man with cerebral palsy and limited motor control, Patel said.

“[Since our client] was one of the more disabled employees, we concluded that if he could use [the metal-cutting device], anyone could use it,” Patel added.

The task was previously given to a staff member who used a vertical bandsaw to cut strips because of the security concerns it posed to disabled employees.

The competition considered several criteria in evaluating the submitted prototypes. Judges evaluated devices for their usefulness, ease of use and implementation of the device as well as the construction quality and accuracy of the prototype, according to the official website of the competition.

Patel added that faculty members played a large role in the development of the prototype.

In addition to the faculty and other classmates, staff members at Orange Enterprises strengthened the team’s understanding of the task and the barriers they needed to surmount, said Michael Chao, Pratt ’11 and member of last year’s second-place team in the competition.

“[Staff members] have been dealing with these barriers for a longer time than us and were able to provide different tips and angles that we may not have realized,” Chao added.

Students enrolled in the course are encouraged to submit their prototypes to design competitions, Caves said, adding that he hopes that one of the Duke teams places first in the Ability One competition—a feat that has not yet been accomplished.

One of the elements of the course that allures students is seeing their work make a positive impact on another person’s life, Caves noted, adding that he has been communicating with other universities to install a similar course.

“BME 460 was unique in that we designed and built devices to assist people with disabilities,” Patel said. “At the end of the class, we delivered our projects to our clients and we saw firsthand the impact we had made.”

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