Biomechanics at Valparaiso University

College of Engineering Students Hone Their Biomechanics Skills


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If an engineering student is interested in a career in the biomedical field, a mechanical engineering degree from Valparaiso University (Valpo) is a great place to start.  Mechanical engineers model joint motion, investigate wear and failure of implants, design prosthetic devices, design medical devices, design exercise and testing equipment, and much more.  Mechanical engineers are able to do this work because mechanical engineering is one of the broadest engineering disciplines and many of the fundamental concepts and courses apply to the biomedical field.  Not surprisingly, the Professors in many biomedical engineering departments have one of their degrees in mechanical engineering and the major health care and medical device companies hire a multitude of mechanical engineers.

Mechanical engineering students at Valpo can begin learning about biomedical applications in their courses.  For example, in the Advanced Materials elective, they study biomaterials that are compatible with the human body.  In the Robotics elective, they study human joint motion and how that motion can be replicated in robots.  Additional courses in biology, chemistry, and anatomy can be completed to meet mechanical engineering program requirements.  Finally, students can participate in Capstone Senior Design projects in the biomedical area.  In this course, mechanical and electrical engineering students are combined into teams of five to seven students.  These teams design, manufacture, assemble, and test actual systems.  Examples of past biomedical related projects include a device to help children with autism integrate into standard classrooms, a knee rehabilitation device, and a cane to alert visually impaired individuals of obstacles.

Mechanical engineering students at Valpo also have the opportunity to work with a Professor to perform research in the biomedical area.  Over the last three years, twelve students have performed research for Professor Craig Goehler in this area.  Professor Goehler, who earned his doctorate in mechanical engineering from the University of Notre Dame, performs research in humanoid robotics.  Researchers in this area strive to replicate human motion in robots.  To accomplish this, they study and model the motion of human joints and limbs.  Professor Goehler has also worked at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago in the Sensory Motor Performance Program through Northwestern University.  His work there includes the creation of a computer simulation to inform the control of a prosthetic hand device.    The students who have worked with Professor Goehler have either earned mechanical engineering program credit or financial stipends for their participation. 

When asked about the opportunity for mechanical engineers at Valparaiso University to investigate the biomedical field, Professor Goehler states, "Biomechanical research projects at Valpo are designed to prepare our students to either enter graduate school or begin a career in the biomedical field.  Our undergraduate research students are participating in cutting edge research and are supplied with opportunities to present their findings at international conferences."

Students who participate in research in the biomedical area currently have the opportunity to work on three major projects.  In the first project, students investigate how shoe construction can lead to foot and ankle injury.  In this project, students collect data showing the pressure on the sole of the foot during walking or running for a variety of shoes and analyze the data using custom programming.  So far, students have presented their work at the 2011 Annual Meeting of the American Society of Biomechanics in Long Beach, California and the 2012 American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME) Summer Bioengineering Conference in Puerto Rico.   At the ASME Conference, Bethany Powell, a senior mechanical engineering student, won third place in the student poster presentation and her work will be published in a special edition of the Journal of Biomedical Engineering.  Keith Button, another student participant, has continued his work in the biomedical area and is currently pursuing a doctorate in Biomedical Engineering from Michigan State University.

Students also have the opportunity to participate in a project to quantify the stiffness of running shoes.  The purpose of this project is to develop a better shoe design.  To date, three students have worked with Professor Kathleen Sevener (Ph.D.: Materials) and Professor Goehler on the project and have developed a testing apparatus, measured the stiffness of a variety of running shoes, and analyzed experimental data.  Jorie Ballun presented her work at the 2011 Annual Meeting of the American Society of Biomechanics and is pursuing an engineering graduate degree at Vanderbilt.

Finally, three students are currently working on a project to model a variety of joint and limb motion.  The goals of this project are to improve the replication of human motion in robotics, improve prosthetics, and develop more effective rehabilitation procedures.  Students on the project have learned how to setup and calibrate a multi-camera vision system for recording motion in three dimensions.  They then analyze the data from the cameras to determine actual joint and limb motion in a variety of subjects.  In the future, they will be importing the results into software which simulates joint angles and joint forces for everyday motion.          

Reva Johnson, a 2010 Valpo mechanical engineering graduate, is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in Biomedical Engineering at Northwestern University.  At Northwestern, she is researching how to use nerve signals in muscles to control artificial limbs.  When Reva was asked how her engineering education at Valpo prepared her for the biomedical field, she responded, "I am always proud to say that I trained as a mechanical engineer at Valpo, and my education at Valpo has been invaluable in graduate school. I gained the practical skills to machine my own experimental setup, the theoretical background to study control systems, and the compassion to improve patients' abilities in a relevant way."