NEW ORLEANS — Because of a neurological condition called ataxia, Bennett Curran, 8, likes to hold the back of a kitchen chair and rock back and forth. If the chair rocks too far, it tips over and Bennett tumbles to the floor.
That happens so often he must wear a helmet. And since he's a New Orleans child, the helmet is a Saints helmet.
Bennett recently climbed onto a personal rocker, painted black with gold fleurs-de-lis and built for him by a team of four students from Tulane University's biomedical engineering department.
As part of a senior-level course, all of the biomedical engineering students each year divide into teams to design and produce devices for people with disabilities.
As a result, Tulane gets lots of referrals and requests from agencies that serve the disabled.
When Bennett was younger, a Tulane team made a walking device for him.
Several months ago, his parents sat down with students Ben Bullock, Mat Triscott, Mike Coletti and Michelle Fryar. The team then spent hundreds of hours designing and building the rocking device, which looks like a wooden track hurdle on hinged legs with a hydraulic lift behind each leg.
When Bennett stands on a cushioned platform and pulls the horizontal bar forward, the hydraulic lifts, like those used to hold up hatchback doors, gently ease the bar back to its original position.
His Saints helmet on, Bennett climbed onto his device for the first time on a recent Saturday afternoon at a student design show. It was clear that he wanted to rock.
He leaned back.
That in itself was an achievement. The students had worried he might be uninterested or even frightened of the device, which seemed big against his 52-pound frame.
As it turned out, Bennett's giant toy needed some adjustments. His mom had to help him pull back the bar, said Triscott, who explained that the team will lessen the bar's resistance this week by going back to AutoZone and purchasing lighter hydraulics.
Many of the design teams hoped to meet the end-users of their devices for the first time, although not all the clients were able to make it.
Tulane students Atman Dave, Kristina Farragut and Matt Giannetti went to the U.S. Patent Office and applied for a patent for their team's design, a one-handed wheelchair lock that will be used at St. Margaret's nursing home by an elderly woman who lost the use of her left side after a stroke.
But most of the senior designers were focused more on their clients than on the marketplace.
One team redid a stationary bicycle that plays music. It was first designed by their predecessors at Tulane several years ago for the Chartwell Center, which serves children with autism and related disorders.
When children pedal the bicycle fast enough, music comes on in their headphones.
The first step for that team — Kim Larkin, Molly Kelly-Goss, Patrick Mackay and Sarah Davis — was retrieving the dusty, unused bike from an attic and stripping off now-outdated electronics, like the CD player that played actual CDs. The player was considerably more bulky than its replacement, an iPod the size of a pack of gum that will hold a custom playlist for each child.
The team also programmed a mousetrap-size controller that measures speed through magnets placed on the wheels and turns on the iPod when the required speed is reached.
One innovation came because of an observation: broken and worn pedals. The Tulane students discovered that the Chartwell staff needed to tote the bike from place to place and had used the pedal-straps as handles.
So this year's team attached caster wheels and a handle and streamlined the bicycle to make it less unwieldy and more portable.
The students had to justify every step to a faculty panel. For instance, they had planned to replace the pedals and straps by ordering the exact same parts from the manufacturer. Before they could do that, the panel quizzed them about whether the straps worked for their clients and whether the pedals were adequate.
The panel also questioned the team's original "grand plan," Davis said. They had envisioned a bike that needed no wires as connections and that created its own power so it didn't need to be plugged into an outlet. Much of the original plan was revised, to something more realistic.
"It turns out that electronics are a lot more complicated than we'd thought," Mackay said.
Information from: The Times-Picayune, http://www.nola.com