Rice students work to bring deft touch to amputees

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HOUSTON (AP) - People with prosthetic hands have to handle everything with care.

When picking up a delicate egg, they can’t instinctively modulate how hard they’re gripping it. When placing a glass on a table, they have to watch closely that they don’t loosen their hold before it is set down safely.

A group of five Rice University engineering students have been working for months to solve this problem and develop a device to bring a little more normalcy to the lives of amputees.

They’ve created an armband that amputees can wear with their prosthetics. As the artificial hand opens and closes, a rubber wheel in the armband rotates, pulling against the arm and indicating to what degree the hand is open or closed.

“Using a prosthetic is still about learning what you can do and what you can’t do,” said Bryan Solomon, a 22-year-old bioengineering senior at Rice University. “It takes a lot of mental effort to use a prosthetic limb - you have to watch it all the time.”

Solomon and the other members of his group, called Magic Touch, have worked all year to solve one of dozens of conundrums presented to engineering students at Rice at the beginning of the school year by a variety of science and technology leaders.

Five Rice seniors make up the group: mechanical engineering majors Julie Walker, 21, and Michael Schubert, 22, both from New Jersey; bioengineering majors Caitlin Makatura, 22, from North Texas; Solomon, a Seattle native; and electrical and computer engineering major Xuejiao Liang, an exchange student from China who goes by Holly.

Magic Touch is one of 85 teams that presented their solutions Thursday at the university’s popular annual engineering showcase. Past winners have created important tools for global health, from a lightweight microscope that fits in a backpack to an air pump that keeps infants breathing using aquarium equipment and a water bottle. The showcase is a chance for students to show off their work and for industry officials to find future workers who are needed more and more in science, technology, engineering and math, commonly known as STEM fields.

“The students have poured their heart and soul into this project,” said Maria Oden, director of the Oshman Engineering Design Kitchen, where students have tinkered on their inventions for the last year.

The winner of this year’s showcase will take home a $5,000 top prize, and there are a number of other grants teams can win, as well. But more important than the money, Oden says, is a chance for students to do engineering work with real world constraints, from a tight deadline to limited funding.

“Engineers go into engineering because they want to make things and solve problems,” Oden told the Houston Chronicle (http://bit.ly/1lbAhxu ). “That’s what this is.”

The program’s popularity has ballooned, even in the face of a shortage of STEM workers.

Education, industry and political leaders - all the way up to President Barack Obama - have called on schools to push STEM education. More than 900 students work in the classes taught out of the design kitchen - that’s nearly triple the number who took classes there when the kitchen opened five years ago, Oden said.

The kitchen can help stem the drain from STEM courses, as well. There’s a growing push to get freshmen in the kitchen, Oden said, so they can take part in hands-on projects that keep them motivated while they take some of the most difficult courses of their college career.

“It gives students a chance to see why they’re taking those hard classes,” Oden said.

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