Health Meets Engineering for Students Visiting Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago

You see the piece of pizza. You want the piece of pizza. You grab the piece of pizza.

Easy, right? For most people, it is. But while it might seem like movement happens automatically, it’s actually the result of a complex interaction between our brains, spinal cords, and muscles. But what happens if that interaction is interrupted by an injury or stroke?

Sixth-graders from Skokie’s Old Orchard Junior High School learned the answer to that question and more on a field trip Wednesday to the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago, part of an outreach project with Northwestern University faculty.

The field trip focused on the nervous system and spinal cord injury: how the brain controls motor function, how spinal cord injuries and strokes affect movement and sensation, and how rehabilitation and prosthetics can help a person with a spinal cord injury regain independence.

The activities were part of a three-year outreach project — Cyber-physical Applications in Rehabilitation and Education (CARE) — organized by Eric Perreault, associate professor of biomedical engineering at the McCormick School of Engineering and associate professor of physical medicine and rehabilitation.

“I started this project as a way to provide students with an integrated teaching of science and mathematics, which are too often taught as separate and unrelated subjects in the K-12 environment,” Perreault said. “I’m optimistic that a little bit of information and motivation at a young age can have a big impact on the opportunities these children will have in the future.”

The program, which is currently in its second year, targets 60 students in grades six, seven, and eight. It is funded by the National Science Foundation Program in Cyber-Physical Systems.

In their first year, sixth-graders are introduced to engineering in the context of rehabilitation through guest speakers, field trips, and hands-on projects. The projects introduce fundamental engineering concepts such as design, computer programming, sensors and measurement, and mathematical modeling. As a final project, they design and build a small-scale robotic wheelchair that could be operated by someone with a high-level spinal cord injury.

Seventh-graders get a more in-depth exposure to computer science through the programming language Python. Eighth-graders undertake a design project to help students with learning disabilities at their school; so far, projects — designed and built by the students themselves — include a web-based school newspaper for students with autism spectrum disorders, and mobile phone applications to help students with cognitive disabilities organize their time and focus on the critical content of class readings.

The outreach project is part of a five-year, $3.4 million research grant, “Cybernetic Interfaces for the Restoration of Human Movement through Functional Electrical Stimulation.” Other Northwestern faculty involved with the grant are Matt Tresch, Kevin Lynch, Sandro Mussa-Ivaldi, Lee Miller, and Konrad Kording.

--Sarah Ostman  

RIC visit

Rosalind Heckman, a graduate student in Perreault’s lab, demonstrates how transcranial magnetic stimulation can trigger movement in a student’s hand. “It felt like someone was hitting my arm, but from the inside,” said student Jiwoo Kim.

Sixth-grade students visit the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago

Transcranial magnetic stimulation uses rapidly changing magnetic fields to generate activity in the brain and through the nervous system; the device can be used to trigger involuntary muscle movements. At left, Chris Krystyn, an RIC peer mentor who suffered a spinal cord injury at the age of 16, explores whether transcranial magnetic stimulation can cause movement in his paralyzed forearms.

Sixth-graders visit RIC

Professor Perreault demonstrates a myoelectric prosthetic, a prosthetic hand that uses electromyography signals from a person’s arm to control its movements.

Sixth-graders visit RIC

Students play a game to test their reflexes after a discussion about startle reflexes, a reflex that often occurs when a person is taken by surprise. The reflex is believed to originate in the brainstem, and can occur even in patients whose movement has been slowed or paralyzed by a stroke. Researchers in Perreault’s lab have been studying the startle reflex in an effort to apply their findings to the rehabilitation of stroke patients.

Sixth-graders visit RIC

Students test a traditional prosthetic arm by picking up and dropping small blocks in the laboratory of Professor Todd Kuiken at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago.

Sixth-graders visit RIC

Lee Miller, Edgar C. Stuntz Distinguished Professor of Neuroscience at the Feinberg School of Medicine, shows students the difference in size between a human brain and the brain of a rhesus monkey.