Keeping kids healthy through adaptive play

Keeping kids healthy through adaptive play

Innovation, education are the heart of rehabilitation engineering projects.

Mechanical Engineering and Kinesiology Professor Samuel Landsberger, mechanical engineering graduate student Artin Davidian ‘81, and physical therapist Connie Wong take a ride on the newly installed Accessible Mobility Platform for the Los Angeles Orthopaedic Hospital. The equipment, which was originally designed by high school students, is on loan to CSULA.

The start of accessible play

For more than a decade, Kinesiology and Mechanical Engineering Professor Samuel Landsberger has trained college students and introduced area children to rehabilitation engineering as a career path.

“The mission I have had was to expose students, who I thought would relate better to engineering when they saw how it relates to the community, to the field,” Landsberger said.

Rehabilitation engineering is a field that uses technological tools and equipment to find innovative solution to obstacles faced by people with disabilities.

Landsberger’s start in the field began years before coming to Cal State L.A., when he was a young faculty member at Cornell University. The University challenged its faculty to develop a tactic for improving retention among female and minority engineering students, whose enrollment slipped by more than 50 percent from freshman to senior years, he said.

Landsberger found that student retention increased when they worked on projects with a human impact.

One of his first assignments was to develop a machine to help parents of children with disabilities lift their larger children in and out the car. His students designed a pulley like system that redistributed the kids' weight and thus eased strain on parents' backs.

“It was simple and basic — but it worked,” he noted.

Today, Landsberger and his students continue to work in the same capacity at Cal State L.A., partnering with Rancho Los Amigos, the Los Angeles Orthopaedic Hospital and CSULA faculty members’ rehabilitation exercise clients on projects. The work spans many generations and communities.

“One of the goals in me doing all of this is that it will inspire others to take on similar-minded endeavors,” Landsberger said.

At first glance, it seems really quite simple: three handle bars and a circular platform that spins steadily in a circle. It’s your typical playground merry-go-round.

But wait. This dynamic playground structure, formally called the Accessible Mobility Platform (AMP), however, is anything but average. AMP—designed by high school students, modeled by Cal State L.A. engineering students, and constructed voluntarily by Kinesiology and Mechanical Engineering Professor Samuel Landsberger—is specifically tailored for young riders in wheelchairs. Children control the speed of their ride not by running and pushing, but by pressing handle bars.

“It’s really quite an ingenious design,” said Landsberger, who has dedicated weekends and free-time throughout the last year to seeing the project through. “And I’m relieved that it’s almost ready for primetime.”

The playground equipment, on loan to Cal State L.A. from the Los Angeles Orthopaedic Hospital’s universally accessible playground downtown, grew out of work in Landsberger’s rehabilitation engineering classes. Rehabilitation engineering involves technological solutions and designs created to solve problems confronted by people with disabilities.

As Landsberger describes it, it’s engineering and science with heart.

“I think that this is good vehicle for getting kids involved in science and engineering,” Landsberger said. “They see how it helps people and the world.”

Landsberger became involved with rehabilitation engineering to draw and retain diverse engineering students, whom studies have found relate better to projects that have a direct impact on lives and community. After completing just a few projects, he said he was hooked. (Read more about how Landsberger got his start in the sidebar.)

“For me, it is sort of an excuse to do what I love: innovation,” Landsberger said. “I found that this is a great place, a great field for inventing stuff.”

For the last 10 years, Landsberger has been teaching Cal State L.A. undergraduates about the principles of rehabilitation engineering and involving them in service-learning projects like the AMP. His kinesiology and mechanical engineering students work together to design machines and equipment to enhance an individual’s range of activity. In fact, his students often develop equipment to help the young children and families who come to campus for rehabilitation exercise with faculty members Ray De Leon, Dwan Bridges or Connie Wong, all of the School of Kinesiology and Nutritional Science.

Imagination is the limit when it comes to creating and designing accessible technology, Landsberger said. Projects have varied dramatically—from an accessible beach-cruiser bike, skis and a snowboard, to pedal-powered wheelchairs, a prosthetic child’s hand and a prosthetic leg for trail running. Some students involved in the Hands-on Experience in Rehabilitation Engineering (HERE) program also recently developed tools to allow children in wheelchairs to play in a sand box via a conveyor belt that brings sand up to the child and an extended-arm scooper, to pick up and move sand.

“It’s exciting and rewarding work,” said Artin Davidian ’81, a mechanical engineering graduate student who also works as the coordinator for the HERO, or Hands-on Experience in Rehabilitation Engineering Outreach program.

Gesturing toward the AMP equipment on a recent morning, Davidian added: “This is the end result and when you come and see children using this it’s even more rewarding.”

Davidian was involved with the project from its inception, serving as an advisor to the high school student designers and the CSULA students who created a model for their senior design project.

With every project, Landsberger tries to see that his students have a real-world work and design experience. Working in teams and with clients to build confidence is important in giving them a competitive edge when they enter the industry, he said.

In the case of the merry-go-round, for instance, the HERE students spoke with children, doctors, hospital officials, trustees, and playground-safety inspectors to make sure that the design would be reasonably sound and functional. Landsberger used his students’ notes and their wooden model to design and build the real equipment.

“(The AMP) is a great addition because it gives children that we serve at the hospital even more. It adds to their experience,” said Adrienne Lao, the Los Angeles Orthopaedic Hospital Foundation’s director of public relations and foundation communications. The hospital has loaned the equipment to the University to further evaluate and monitor its usage and improve upon it.