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Mechanical Engineering Students Help Infant With Cerebral Palsy

January 21, 2020

It’s one thing to complete a school project for a grade. It’s something totally
different to complete a school project that can change a person’s life.
A group of engineering students at Tennessee Tech did both during the fall
semester. Megan Wesemann, Stephen De Troye, Shelby Kilgore, Dayro
Martinez and Christopher Gray created a custom-made hybrid spinal
support to help a little girl with cerebral palsy. The project was part of the
Early Intervention and Mechanical Engineering program which pairs
engineering students (from ME 3610) with families with children with
special needs in the Upper Cumberland region to design assistive devices
to help with feeding, mobility, play and other normal developmental
“This project is an exemplary, but not unusual, demonstration of the skills
and capabilities of our TTU engineering students,” said mechanical
engineering professor Stephen Canfield. “There were 17 similar projects in
the EIME program this past semester alone by TTU engineering students
to help children and families in our Upper Cumberland region. These
students bring creativity, skill, energy and caring to help these families.
These projects provide assistive solutions for special children and families
that simply would not be available otherwise. These projects are very
important to the development and growth of these children.”
This particular project that Wesemann, De Troye, Kilgore, Martinez and
Gray worked on was for a little girl named Miracle, who was born 15 weeks
premature with brain bleeds and CP. Because Miracle has little mobility or
trunk support, the family was having a hard time feeding and bathing her.
“We sat down and the students asked what they could do to help our
family,” said Miracle’s mother, Ashley Steakley. “We were anxious and
super appreciative of what we were going to get done.”
The team began their project at the beginning of the fall semester and
quickly developed numerous potential designs. They created a custommade hybrid spinal support with more rigid spine support and custommolded torso support. Their design incorporated this hybrid spinal support
system into a mobile base to help Miracle learn to walk. The team
consulted with several orthopedic surgeons and performed detailed
engineering analysis prior to fabrication and testing.
“The students find great reward in helping the families on the projects,”
said Canfield. “I can see it in the amount of time they spend on the project
and attention to detail in fabricating and delivering the results. This is true
for all my students, even the ones who are not the best test takers, or
maybe are not the most punctual on homework, put in way more effort on
the project. They clearly are motivated to help others.”
When the project was complete, the students drove more than an hour to
Miracle’s home to deliver their creation one day prior to her first birthday.
After spending almost two hours of tweaking and adjustments, the
orthopedic spine fit Miracle perfectly and the results were exactly what
everyone had hoped for.
“We couldn’t be happier,” said Steakley. “Watching her little face as she
has learned to move herself and sit up independently, it’s truly better than
we could have ever expected.”
Once Miracle was comfortable with the orthopedic spine, she was placed in
a gait trainer that allowed her feet to touch the ground and move around
“She seems to like it a lot and it holds her in place. It worked out really
great,” said De Troye, a junior mechanical engineering major from Johnson
City. “This is something that the family is going to get to use for years and
actually impacts a child’s life.”
The experience not only touched Miracle and her family, but the students
as well.
“I am so appreciative. It is astounding and life-changing to see how this
affects her life,” said Wesemann, a junior mechanical engineering major
from Morristown. “This is what I want to do for my life. I want to design
different products for people with disabilities and help them for the best.”
“My mom is in the medical field, so helping people is something I’ve always
wanted to do,” echoed Kilgore, a senior mechanical engineering major from
Dunlap. “It’s cool to see it going from the designer style of it and then
actually seeing it help a kid is crazy. I like it a lot.”
Students involved in the EIME program often report to Canfield that the
project is the most important part of their semester despite all the work that
it requires. Many students identify the project as a key to their selection or
continuing engineering and helps direct their career choices.
“I always thought we would build a robot that would move a ball or
something like that,” said Kilgore. “To see it actually help a kid’s life versus
just a project to just make something is really neat.”