Students Reach Out to India and Its Poor

By John Gagnon | Published

Members of the foot team, left to right, are Stephanie Bass, Victoria Demers, Marcel Kerkove, Allison Lebovsky, Paul Sturmer and Robert Strobel.
Members of the foot team, left to right, are Stephanie Bass, Victoria Demers, Marcel Kerkove, Allison Lebovsky, Paul Sturmer and Robert Strobel.

Two teams of undergraduate engineering students at Michigan Technological University have developed two low-cost, workable prostheses—one a knee, one a foot—and brought them to India, the first step in an effort to make them available to that nation's many poor.

Kelsy Ryskamp was on the knee team that traveled to Jaipur and New Delhi to meet orthopedic surgeons over spring break. “They were impressed with our work,” she says. “It’s amazing we had this opportunity, and it’s crazy to think that a group of six students could do something this big—potentially change the way people live in a developing country.”

As part of International Senior Capstone Design, a program based in the Department of Mechanical Engineering-Engineering Mechanics, the two teams have been working on their projects since fall 2011. Both teams were to develop a device that is affordable and lightweight; made with local materials and by local labor; easy to assemble, adjust and repair; and allows a natural gait.

Teams also had to consider the Indian culture and design devices that would accommodate common practices, such as sitting cross-legged and squatting, and suit people who often wear sandals or go barefoot.

Ryskamp is from Grand Ledge and has a dual major in mechanical engineering and biomedical engineering. “We started with basically nothing,” she says. “We had creative license to do what we wanted. It was very exciting. We were passionate about it.”

Although there are many artificial knees on the market, they can cost up to $5,000, a prohibitive price for the poor of India. Ryskamp says the students’ model would cost $510 and is designed to be more sturdy. Their device joins an amputee’s real upper leg to an artificial lower leg and is the same size as a human knee; details are a secret because the students have applied for a patent. Students tested stresses; creep and deformation; and aesthetics. The knee comes in three sizes, all for adults.

The prototype was completed in March, and refinements were made after the 10-day spring break trip to India. It is now being tested at the All India Institute of Medical Science in New Delhi.

“This experience means just about everything to me,” Ryskamp says. “It reflects what I want to do and where I want to go.”

Before she came to Tech, she never envisioned such opportunities. “I love it here. Tech has been everything I thought and more.” She says the faculty gave her inspiration as well as confidence.

Marcel Kerkove, a senior in mechanical engineering from Ironwood, worked on a prosthetic foot with five other students.  They, too, trekked to India in March to present their artificial foot—an adaptation of the famous Jaipur foot, in use throughout India—to surgeons at the Santokba Durlabhji Memorial Hospital in Jaipur.

Their charge was to design a prosthesis that is lightweight and costs less than $50 to build. They realized both: the device weighs less than an actual foot, and it can be built for $18 (this in a country where a laborer earns $5 a day). Kerkove says the foot is reliable and has a life cycle of three years. “There’s nothing on it that will stop working,” he says. It is meant to affix to a prosthetic leg with a single bolt.

“As we kept going,” Kerkove adds, “there were more and more things to work on and improve. It was easy for us to get inspired and work hard. The expectations were high. Everyone was motivated to try and help people over there. We didn’t want to let them down. ”

Associate Professor Gregory Odegard was the advisor for both teams.

“These students are very talented,” he says. “I’m impressed at what they accomplished. They’ve gone the extra mile by doing more than what was asked of them. Their heart was in this. I love working with them. It’s a lot of fun because they are so enthusiastic.”

The students on these teams graduated this spring, but Odegard has already envisioned the task for next year’s seniors: an inexpensive new brace for scoliosis—a deformed spine—designed for children and adolescents. They will work with doctors at the Council for Child Welfare in New Delhi. As well, Tech seniors might tackle another project: modifying the artificial knee and foot for children.

This project was made possible in part by financial support from the Texas-based Jiv Daya Foundation and its Amputee Assistance-India team.

Michigan Technological University is a public research university, home to more than 7,000 students from 60 countries. Founded in 1885, the University offers more than 120 undergraduate and graduate degree programs in science and technology, engineering, forestry, business and economics, health professions, humanities, mathematics, and social sciences. Our campus in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula overlooks the Keweenaw Waterway and is just a few miles from Lake Superior.