Minds Over Matter
Page 3 of 4

"Muscles are essentially electrically controlled motors," Rappa explains, "and the computer was able to send signals to them the same way the brain does." For many engineering students, these connections become clear during senior year in a course on biomedical instrumentation. "Your entire body is engineered perfectly. It's really cool," says Robert Sandler '07, who earned his degree in electrical engineering in May. Before taking the course, Sandler says he knew nothing about biopotential signals—electrical currents created by chemical reactions in the body. "Your eyes are like a battery—who knew that?"

With this knowledge comes another realization: Biopotential can be harnessed. While Luke Samuelson's glove uses electricity from a battery, other rehabilitative engineering projects can make use of the body's own electrical signals, once they have been isolated and amplified. LaCourse finds that these projects are of particular interest to many students. Some, like Rappa, have a personal connection to the field. Minuti, on the other hand, says, "I'm not the typical biomed guy. I'm just fascinated with the brain's higher functions."

Samuelson IF THE GLOVE FITS: Samuelson tries the second finger-switch prototype in a modfied batting glove. As his finger bends, a tiny current running through a strip of metal produces measurable changes in resistance, which can be converted into Morse code. The final version, a single glove finger, was easier to manipulate. Photo by Perry Smith, UNH Photographic Services.

Sandler was one of six electrical and computer engineering majors who devoted many hours over the past year to a very challenging senior project: the development of a "universal wheelchair" that could be controlled by voice waves, eye movements and brain waves. LaCourse, adviser to this team as well, says that as far as he knows, a wheelchair has never been controlled by all three.

At UNH, every engineering student must complete a year-long senior project, and the universal wheelchair was one of 14 projects in the senior projects course taught jointly by Gerry Sedor of mechanical engineering and Alan Drake of electrical and computer engineering. Throughout the year, students attend weekly classes, meet biweekly with their project adviser, and report to their course instructors as they might to a manager if they were working on a team in an industrial setting. In fact, the experience of working on a team is considered one of the most challenging—and valuable—aspects of the senior project.

Some of the projects continue for years, with a new team building on the work of previous students. Sandler and his five teammates were the first to try to devise a universal wheelchair, but presumably not the last. "I've always wanted to start something that could be carried on," he said in April, looking ahead even as the team was putting in long hours to accomplish as much as possible before presenting their results at the university's Undergraduate Research Conference, an annual weeklong symposium featuring the scholarly and creative work of UNH students from all academic disciplines. "This is a really interesting project, definitely cutting edge, and regardless of what we get for an outcome, there will be something great for next year's team to pick up."

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