January 30, 2013
Elementary School “MacGyver Club” Tackles Prosthetics Project
Using work done by engineers in APL’s Research and Exploratory Development Department (REDD), a group of third-, fourth-, and fifth-graders at Parkway Elementary School in Frederick County, MD, developed a myoelectric armband that enables users to play the popular video game “Guitar Hero” without using buttons. The students are members of the MacGyver Club, an after-school STEM program designed to enhance concept learning and critical thinking by connecting the school system’s math, science, and technology curriculum with activities outside of the traditional classroom.
The club’s project is based on work done by REDD’s Bobby Armiger and Jacob Vogelstein through an Independent Research and Development grant. The two rewired Nintendo’s “Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock” game to allow amputees to get valuable training with prosthetic prototypes. It was an outgrowth of their work on the APL-led Revolutionizing Prosthetics 2009 effort, funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, to develop a prosthetic arm that can be controlled and also feel, look, and perform like a natural limb.
Over the course of 10 weeks, the students—guided by REDD’s Courtney Moran, a prosthetist who is also involved in the Revolutionizing Prosthetics program—developed their own air guitar by building parts of the components each week. “First we covered the basics—basic conductivity, body physiology, body interface engineering, and basic circuitry,” Moran explains. At the start of each module, a speaker would come in.
Armiger and Moran demonstrated the air guitar system and talked about the conductivity and the pieces of the system as a circuit. Moran teamed up with Grace Tran, of APL’s Force Projection Department, to talk about basic physiology, muscles, and the nervous system as conductors and insulators. They also talked about the principles of designing an armband that had certain requirements as a body interface. Lastly, Kapil Katyal and Brock Wester, both of REDD, demonstrated the Modular Prosthetic Limb (MPL) and explained it as a circuit and discussed the basic science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) concepts that contributed to the design.
Between each speaker, the kids met weekly and were tasked with collecting materials and testing the materials for strength of conductivity and resistivity. They also collected and tested body interface materials for the armband; measured their arm circumference to ensure that the adjustable armband would support the conductive materials they collected as electromyogram sites and fit on their arms snugly; and then refined their design. All of the materials had to be collected from around their house or donated, forcing the kids to be creative and thrifty.
“We used a borrowed CPC Headstage (a component that helps convert and filter small muscle signals into information that the MPL interprets into the appropriate movement) to simplify the conversion of signals and enable us to have the kids focus on the broader principles of making the armband and the roll of the armband in the overall system,” Moran explained.
At the final session, they tested and integrated the armbands, “and every single one worked,” Moran says. “It was incredible.” The students were able to test their bands in a virtual integration environment (VIE), a computer interface that allows users to program the armbands as well as view and control a virtual MPL (as opposed to the actual physical device).
“Each team of three tested their armband using the mini-VIE by training wrist flexion, wrist extension, and no movement, and then was able to control the virtual MPL movements relatively,” Moran says.
A second 10-week session—with a different group of students—just started. “At the end of that session we will bring both sessions back to practice ‘Guitar Hero’ with their armbands at the end of the year for a final demo,” Moran says.
The MacGyver Club began after Parkway Elementary teachers Lawrence Paul and Justin MacConnaghy wrote and won a competitive STEM grant from the Frederick-based ClinicalRM, Inc. Moran says the group got its name from fictional secret agent Angus MacGyver, a character on the television show “MacGyver” known for his encyclopedic knowledge of science and his ability to solve complex problems with everyday materials he finds at hand.
“The overall goal of the club was not only to execute the task of making a myoelectric armband that could serve as the interface to control the air guitar, but also to encourage the kids to be resourceful and creative by collecting and borrowing the bulk of our supplies, using STEM principles, and working as a team,” Moran says.
“My desire for the MacGyver Club concept is to pick a different STEM-based open-source project topic each year if we can keep up our funding,” she says. “This year it was Air Guitar Hero, but it could be anything from basic programing with a Kinex to creating a solar window greenhouse from TED.com in other years. The goal is to use open-source technology to guide hands-on collaboration and learning in a fun and really applied way. The club is a great example of achieving broad STEM goals through multiple nontraditional partnerships.”
Dwight Carr, APL’s STEM program manager, says the MacGyver Club “is a wonderful example of how we all can make a difference, both as members of the APL STEM Corps and as individuals. Making STEM relevant to children does not require you to be an expert with kids but only requires a willingness to share your love for science, technology, engineering, or math with a student, parent, or teacher. APL can’t solve this problem without your help. The clock is ticking; let’s all be MacGyvers and solve this together.”