Howard Community College students engineer a fulfilled wish in young girl’s ‘chariot’

For The Baltimore Sun

Like any child, Fernanda Lopez dreamed of owning a bike.

With the help of Howard Community College engineering students and a Baltimore nonprofit that develops customized assistive technology for people with disabilities, the 9-year-old with muscular dystrophy got her wish and much more.

An 18-month collaboration between HCC and V-LINC produced a one-of-a-kind "exercise chariot" for the bright-eyed, pony-tailed little girl, giving her the set of wheels she craved — and a dose of physical therapy at the same time.

Fernanda's parents, Manuel and Obdulia Lopez, and sister Daniela accompanied her to the Columbia campus last week for one last test run before the pink four-wheeled vehicle was officially pronounced hers to take home to Silver Spring that afternoon.

"I think it's good," declared Fernanda, who uses a respirator and had to be carried from her wheelchair by her father to be placed in her chariot's go-kart seat.

"I know you tried your best and did everything you could," she softly told the three HCC students who had come to the college's engineering lab to make a few last tweaks and wish her well.

Colin Steplowski, 19, of Columbia; Jacob Moffit, 21, of Savage; and Griffin Kenney, 19, of Jessup, who all served as engineering lab aides, gave the chariot a final once-over. All are returning to HCC in the fall.

Though Fernanda can't propel the chariot, which must be pushed, wheels from a child's bike were used at the vehicle's rear to give it an air of authenticity during jaunts with her family.

Fernanda already had the use of her motorized wheelchair for such trips, but now she has a vehicle that transforms her rides into exercise sessions to strengthen arm muscles weakened by her illness, which is a progressive, genetic disease that causes loss of muscle mass and other symptoms.

The chariot can also be used as a stationary vehicle in the family's home.

Obdulia Lopez is pleased the vehicle will exercise her daughter's arm muscles.

"We were at Children's Hospital in D.C. for therapy when we had this idea," she said of the couple's decision to talk to their social worker, who then contacted V-LINC. After accepting the project, the nonprofit asked the community college to collaborate with them.

Initial attempts to devise a plan to simulate pedaling that would have given Fernanda the whole biking experience had to be abandoned due to her limited range of motion.

"We were developing the idea of a chariot with passive foot movement, but it was decided [by a physical therapist] that it would be more to her advantage to exercise her arms," said Kirk Platt, a V-LINC volunteer and liaison to the college.

"We then tried a motorized hand-pedal with a crank, but when we saw that she couldn't handle the circular motion without pain, we switched to a back-and-forth movement," he said.

The final design employs a computer-driven motor that operates forearm cuffs attached to an acrylic tray. The cuffs gently extend one of Fernanda's arms while retracting the other toward her body.

Platt said V-LINC has made 50 bikes for people with disabilities "and no two are the same."

Scott Foerster and Craig Murray are the HCC engineering department faculty members who shared supervision of the team effort across three semesters.

Foerster, an associate professor who led the team during the 2016 spring semester, said the students designed the chariot from scratch and went on to make about 100 small parts on a 3D printer.

"The students went through multiple designs [to get to the end product] and even custom-designed a seat belt with a four-point harness," he said.

Murray, an assistant professor who couldn't be present when the chariot was handed off to the Lopez family, said the experience was invaluable for all involved.

"Over the course of the previous two semesters, I've learned that students are capable of so much more than I would have even given myself credit for at the same stage in my engineering studies," he wrote in an email.

"Their tenacity and creativity were inspiring."

Steplowski, a rising sophomore, said he was contacted about the project when he enrolled at HCC last year since he'd worked on welding it as part of his off-site studies at the county school system's Applications and Research Laboratory during his senior year at Oakland Mills High School.

"Professor Foerster basically said to me, 'I know what you're going to be doing,'" he recalled.

"I tweaked the black steel frame, which was overbuilt at first and now is a basic ladder frame," he said. He also noted it was originally made of PVC, but the material was replaced with aluminum for its increased rigidity and strength.

Moffit, who has one more semester at the college, was put in charge of the vehicle's safety features.

"The PVC was cracking and didn't do well in the sun," he said. "And it was my idea to paint and seal [the chariot] to keep it from rusting."

Kenney, also a rising sophomore, designed the vehicle's 3D-printed parts.

"I worked on getting the moving parts to be functional," he said. "We loved working on the 3D printer in the lab so much that each of us bought one to use at home."

Kristen Mende, an instructor of physical therapist assistant classes at the college, helped ensure the team's design was successful from a therapeutic standpoint.

"Fernanda has no sensation in certain areas of her body, so we adjusted everything for comfort and made sure not to overwork her shoulders" with the passive exercise feature, she said.

Angela Tyler, who coordinates volunteers at V-LINC, wished the Lopez family well, telling them she was "so glad we were able to accomplish this."

Manuel Lopez said he's happy for his daughter, adding, "I just want to say thank you to everyone."

Fernanda widened her eyes and grinned broadly as she surveyed her "bike."

"I'm excited," she said. "I waited so long and had to be so patient, and now I'm happy."

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