Students design custom device for local high-school student

In the Biomedical Engineering Senior Design course, students get hands-on experience with creating a device or product that will improve quality of life. One group of students has some extra incentive after meeting a young woman who will be using the device they create.

Yuni Teh, a senior majoring in biomedical engineering, and Joe Klaesner, PhD, look at the prototype of a portable air source for a talking tracheotomy tube the students developed in the Senior Design course.

Yuni Teh, Jiwon Song and Joey Dranetz, all seniors majoring in biomedical engineering, chose to create a device that would allow Cheyenne, a high-school senior with a tracheostomy tube, to talk. Cheyenne is a quadriplegic and is on a ventilator because of a severe respiratory condition. The ventilator supplies air down into her lungs and back out through the same hole, which prevents her from being able to speak. Currently, when she wants to speak, she uses a cough-assist device, which is uncomfortable, loud and expensive.

A talking tracheostomy tube would allow air to go back up the airway and allow her to speak, but currently, there are no portable, quiet and comfortable medical air sources that can meet all the requirements of the tube. Cheyenne's respiratory therapist reached out to Joseph Klaesner, PhD, associate professor of physical therapy and instructor of the Senior Design course, and asked if students in the course could create a portable, quiet air source that Cheyenne could use when she starts college next fall.

It's an uncommon request for Senior Design students to create such a custom piece, Klaesner says.

"Over the last 15 years, I've only had three or four projects that were designed for a specific person," he says. "But I think there are a lot of students who would like to do more projects like this."

But besides the portability issue, there are other challenges the team faced, as well.

"The humidity and temperature have to be similar to her body's conditions," said Song, who also is getting a minor in computer science. "If the air is dry and cold, it hurts her throat."

Another challenge is finding a battery that will provide it with enough power but not be too inconvenient for the patient to carry around.

"You want it to be portable and light, but to be portable, you would need a battery like a car battery, and that's not light," Song says. "Our current model is portable for a few hours but can be plugged in to a wall outlet."

In addition to a $400 budget, the team is also working on fitting the device so it will hang on the back of the headrest of Cheyenne's power chair, says Dranetz, who also is getting a minor in math. Currently, it's about the size of shoebox.

Although the Senior Design course ended last December, the team is working on their own time through independent study to create a prototype using a 3-D printer to print some of the parts and is still working on a battery and a type of heating system to heat the water to 30 degrees Celsius.

"Meeting Cheyenne is why we are still doing this," says Teh, who is also earning a degree in Applied Science in Electrical Engineering. "There's a real person we are trying to help. That makes a difference for us."

The School of Engineering & Applied Science at Washington University in St. Louis focuses intellectual efforts through a new convergence paradigm and builds on strengths, particularly as applied to medicine and health, energy and environment, entrepreneurship and security. With 91 tenured/tenure-track and 40 additional full-time faculty, 1,300 undergraduate students, more than 900 graduate students and more than 23,000 alumni, we are working to leverage our partnerships with academic and industry partners β€” across disciplines and across the world β€” to contribute to solving the greatest global challenges of the 21st century.