Donald S. Bloswick is a professor in the Mechanical Engineering Department at the University of Utah and Director of Ergonomics and Safety Program at the Rocky Mountain Center for Occupational and Environmental Health where methods and technologies are developed to make life and work for people safer and more efficient.
We had a chance to ask Dr. Bloswick a few questions about the success of the program and how innovative ideas are developed into real devices.
Medgadget: Dr. Bloswick, you have been working at the University of Utah for some decennia already and you are the director of the Safety and Ergonomics Program. Could you tell us how the program came about and how it has grown?
Dr Bloswick: The Ergonomics and Safety (E&S) Program was established in 1986 as a core program within the University of Utah’s Rocky Mountain Center for Occupational and Environmental Health (RMCOEH), a National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health Education and Research Center (NIOSH ERC). Since NIOSH is an agency focused on the health and safety of workers, initial E&S research efforts focused on the potential for musculoskeletal and traumatic injuries in the workplace. Over time this research interest expanded to include rehabilitation/recreational activities and products that have the potential to improve workers’ physical and emotional health as part of the return-to-work process.
This expanded focus began to develop in 1990 when Dr. Don Brown, a former UU ME faculty member, and I were contacted by Dr. Judith Gooch, a physician at Primary Children’s Hospital, who expressed a need for an exercise system for children with cerebral palsy. Working in collaboration we developed a tricycle-based system that received minor local and national publicity. Subsequently we were contacted by people with disabilities, parents of children with disabilities, and other advocates who noted their specific needs for adaptive equipment. We might be considered “accidental inventors” in that we didn’t plan to be a R&D facility for therapeutic and recreational equipment and devices for people with disabilities. It was just a natural evolution after the initial tricycle project. The E&S Program started with one faculty and no students in 1986 and now is staffed by three full-time faculty members, four master’s students, and eight PhD students. In addition, each year one or more undergraduate senior design groups are involved in these activities as part of their senior capstone design project.
Medgadget: How is this program able to continually create unique mobility products for the disabled? What makes you unique and what lessons can other institutions learn from your methods?
Dr Bloswick: The single characteristic that sets our program apart from others is the incredible capability of our student population. UU Mechanical Engineering undergraduates are generally older and more mature than undergraduates in other M.E. programs and often bring hands-on skills to their projects to combine with their academic education. In addition, the UU undergraduate M.E. curriculum is lab-heavy and provides students with the opportunity to combine their classroom education with the design and development of hardware systems. In fact, many of the therapeutic/recreational devices for people with disabilities started as senior design projects. The latest patent, a wheelchair with an alternative hand-propulsion system, was completely designed and fabricated by an undergraduate student group. If there is a lesson for other universities, it is to include more laboratory
activities in all aspects of the undergraduate curriculum, to emphasize hands-on, fabrication projects in the ABET-required (Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology) capstone senior design sequence, and to develop collaborative relationships with nearby programs in Rehabilitation Medicine and Physical/Occupational Therapy.
Medgadget: What do you think are the largest hurdles the program has had or has to overcome creating products for the disabled and injured people?
Dr Bloswick: The largest hurdle has been funding for the projects. In general the department budget for a senior design project is $500-$1000, with the equivalent in matching funds from the E&S Program. We have received a few donations, but in general this research and development effort has been done without external funding using leftover and donated materials. Another historical difficulty has been the transfer of the technology from research to practice. The University of Utah, however, is now focusing on this effort and the UU Technology Commercialization and Technology Venture Development Offices are providing much needed guidance, support, and encouragement.
Medgadget: How many of your mobility products eventually reach larger groups of people for whom they are designed? Do you get a lot of feedback from them and what kind of feedback?
Dr Bloswick: This is an issue that I hope to focus more fully on in the near future. In the past our pattern was to develop an item, possibly write a publication, and then move on to the next idea. The therapeutic tricycle noted above is commercially available and has several hundred users. The recently developed paragliding chair and recently patented hand-propelled wheelchair are in the process of being commercialized. The lift-seat wheelchair was patented and licensed to a local company but not adequately marketed. I bought the patent and donated it to the University so hopefully we can commercialize that. We have also developed several one-of-a kind items, generally for children, that we simply give to the families when completed. While we have received positive feedback on several projects, we often we lose contact with the people who are using these inventions. With the continued assistance, encouragement, and enthusiasm of the staff at the UU Technology Commercialization and Technology Venture Development Offices who are working with us on our new devices (and encouraging us to re-work some of our past inventions), hopefully the results of our efforts will soon have the potential to reach thousands of people.
Medgadget: Recently students from the program partnered with Able Pilot to Provide disabled veterans the opportunity to paraglide using a special ultra-light wheelchair. Can you give us a hint about what is coming next? Or could you tell us about something you have had in mind for a long time that has not yet been realized?
Dr Bloswick: We have two active projects about which we are very excited. The first is a major modification to the hand-propelled trike-type system used by persons with spinal cord injuries. This is an undergrad senior design project brought to Dr. Merryweather and myself by Dr. Jeff Rosenbluth, a UU physician who specializes in innovative rehabilitation and recreation programs and devices for persons with disabilities. The trike will facilitate ingress/egress for users who have no use or minimum use of their lower extremities and incorporate a much-improved braking system. The second device, a project originally started by E&S master’s student James Nolin during his undergrad career, and now being continued as his master’s thesis, is the last in a long line of exoskeletons. James’ device has the potential to prevent back injuries and possibly allow people with back injuries to return to work. Recently I was contacted by Judith Gooch, the same person who originally jumpstarted the whole process, with some new ideas for therapeutic devices that will be fun for children to use. We’re excited to once again collaborate with her and we hope to get some undergrad M.E. senior design groups interested in these projects for the next year. Judy started the ball rolling when she came to us in 1990 and it seems that we’ve now come full circle.