Top engineering students design ball launcher and paint machine for teens with cerebral palsy
His eyes squint to sharpen his concentration as his mouth curves into a smile and his fingers press down on the controller, sending a baseball flying through the air. For a year, 14-year-old Emerson Allen has been patiently waiting for that moment when she can finally play ball with her classmates.
Allen, a native of Baton Rouge, was born with cerebral palsy, a condition that affects muscle movement and coordination. Wanting to be part of the school’s activities and participate in its Miracle League baseball team, Allen and his school, St. Lillian Academy in Baton Rouge, collaborated with engineering students from Louisiana State University (LSU) on a project which would allow him to throw a baseball in the air.
Since fall 2021, a team of five LSU Engineering seniors has been working on this basic design project under the supervision of LSU Mechanical Engineering Instructor Dave Giurintano. Team members include Senior ME Camille Wetekamm of Mandeville; Sven Newhauser of Baton Rouge; Charlie Williams of New Orleans; and electrical engineering seniors Molly Shepherd (team captain) and Thomas Rinaudo, both of Baton Rouge.
“Emerson is super nice,” Wetekamm said. “Every time we meet her she’s like, ‘Ohhhhh yeah. We know we have to finish this project for school, but we also have this alternate motivation, which is to finish it for Emerson. This is going to impact her life and potentially other students at St. Lillian. It’s a really special project that’s rare in the cornerstone business.”
Elissa McKenzie, one of the founders of St. Lillian Academy, contacted the College of Engineering to see if the students would be able to build something for Allen that would allow him to compete in baseball games.
“Every year for the past 10 years, I’ve submitted a number of projects to review groups,” McKenzie said. “We’ve done many projects with LSU, and the synthesis teams have always come up with such amazing and creative ideas that have helped some of our students. It’s amazing what these LSU engineering students are doing for us.”
When the LSU wrap-up team attended one of Allen’s baseball games, they saw the kids throwing the ball about 20 feet, which told them the pitcher they were going designing didn’t have to be very fast. The launcher is a two part system that uses a motorized PVC pipe and a controller. The 3ft by 3ft device acts like a giant pinball plunger attached to a motor and linear actuator that can be programmed for ball launch distance using an up/down switch.
Allen uses the controller, which was designed specifically for his left-handed range of motion, to press buttons that send a signal to the pitcher telling him to throw left, right, up, or down. Allen chose the colors for each command button on the controller, with red as the launch color. The team also added safety sensors so the ball launcher won’t work if someone is within 10 feet of its front.
“We designed Emerson’s user interface to be engaging, but also to give him a sense of accomplishment when the ball lands where he wants it to land,” Rinaudo said.
St. Lillian plans to keep the launch device at school for Allen and other students who may use it in the future.
“It’s so great to do a capstone project that has an effect on someone’s life and will change the way they can interact with their friends,” Wetekamm said.
“It’s very exciting,” Shepherd said. “She’s very excited to use the launcher. She got us all out and catching the ball, and she learned all of our names, so it was a really good experience to see her enjoy a device that we put in a lot of efforts. .”
A team of mechanical and computer engineering students at LSU recently completed their basic design project, which involved designing a program that would allow 18-year-old William Bradford, a former student at the hospital’s children’s development center to children Our Lady of the Lake in McMains, paint on a canvas using only eye and head movements. Bradford, who has cerebral palsy and is confined to a wheelchair, loves to paint and can do it more easily thanks to these four LSU students and their Art-Waters-Matic project.
Computer engineering seniors Timothy Curol of Lake Charles, La., Emily Vu of Metairie, La., and mechanical engineering senior Jack Clement of Iowa, La., and mechanical engineering junior exchange student Ewan Robertson from Scotland have been working on this painting project since the fall of 2021. Using a computer screen attached to his wheelchair, Bradford is able to use his eyes and head to choose colors and ” tell” the brush which direction to move, creating brushstrokes on the canvas that mimic what Bradford sees on his screen.
“I helped design the software for this project,” Curol said. “We developed an application that works with gaze and head switch control to paint on a computer screen and then send that information to the device. It was programmed in Java coding language.”
Vu worked with Curol on the application codes and moving the motors, while Clement and Robertson worked on moving the brush. Clement created the device that rotates the brush on and off the canvas, and Robertson designed the part that moves the brush up and down or side to side on the canvas.
“It was exciting to combine engineering with something I’m passionate about,” Robertson said. “I love working with disabled children, which I do back home in Scotland when teaching disabled children to swim.”
“This project was so much fun,” Vu said. “I just like seeing the paint on the canvas, and we all became friends through the process. It’s really nice to see William having fun too.”
Curol said he not only enjoyed working with Bradford and his family, but it was also a great experience that allowed him to develop his own skills on the project. Clement was also grateful to Bradford’s family for their support in the project and was impressed with Bradford’s painting skills.
“William has always enjoyed painting,” said Bradford’s mother, Anne Marie. “It now gives him the opportunity to do things without so much of my help and just do it on his own, which he loves. It’s an incredible achievement and a win for all children with disabilities.”
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Provided by Louisiana State University
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