Pressure ulcers affect more than 2.5 million people in the United States annually, according to federal health officials, and 60,000 die because of them each year. That’s why a team of online engineering students across the country, led by an Elk Grove dad pursuing his degree from home, spent a year building a prize-winning solution.
Also known as bedsores, pressure ulcers are skin injuries resulting from prolonged pressure, often from spending long periods of time in a bed or chair without changing positions, according to the Mayo Clinic. People with limited mobility and the elderly are particularly at risk.
Robert Graves, 50, an Elk Grove father of three enrolled in Arizona State University’s online engineering program, started working last August on a hospital bed that minimizes bedsores. His virtual ASU classmate from New York, Hadassah Fromowitz, came up with the idea while taking care of a relative’s spouse. Bedridden for days, the patient developed sores and painful infections on his skin, Graves told The Bee in an interview.
Together, Graves and Fromowitz assembled a team of Arizona State undergraduate electrical engineering online students from across the nation. Olivia Ruthven and Makayla Donaldson joined from Tennessee, and Timothy Sparks from Ohio.
Their invention, the Personal Care E-Assistant, was the first project created entirely online to win the Palais Senior Design Prize, for having the most potential for positive impact in society, according to the university news website ASU Now.
Like a standard hospital bed, the E-Assistant has a rotation system built by Graves that allows patients to move back and forth. But the E-Assistant does much more to stimulate blood circulation and avoid patient immobility, which leads to ulcers, Graves said.
The mattress features a built-in conveyor belt, coded and designed by Fromowitz to move patients higher and lower on the bed. Donaldson built sensors to detect the patient’s position and contact medical staff when necessary. The bed can be controlled remotely from any mobile device with Spark’s remote monitoring and communication capabilities, and it can even follow automated cycles of motion through Ruthven’s passive motion system.
The project took nearly a year to complete, and the distance presented unique challenges, Graves said. The team communicated through a mix of online websites and apps: Google Hangouts and Skype to communicate, Google Documents to share ideas, and the organizer app Asana to keep track of tasks and shipments – which Fromowitz used to assemble the final prototype in New York.
When ASU associate professor Pavan Turaga began mentoring the team in late August, he said he was wary. “During our first meeting I was trying to gauge the sense of seriousness of the team,” said Turaga. Online teams that lack discipline and determination don’t make it, he said.
“But as things progressed through the semester...I found that the amount of coordination and the skills that everyone brought to the table was remarkable,” Turaga said. “It was purely an online engagement, but there was a physical component to the project too. They were shipping things to themselves, assembling the mechanical components.”
And Graves was also raising a family. A former project manager at the Sacramento renewable fuels company Pacific Ethanol, the stay-at-home dad was taking care of two middle-schoolers and a kindergartner while building the E-Assistant. “My youngest was my lab partner,” he said with a laugh.
He enrolled in ASU in 2015, he said – almost 15 years after graduating with a bachelor’s in history from UC Riverside. “Being in a traditional college campus wasn’t an option with the family, so ASU’s online EE program allowed me to take care of the kids and go to school.” And after three years of late nights studying on computer screens with students from across the country, he said, he and his family are glad he finally graduated in May – with a prize to show for it.
The E-Assistant was showcased on Arizona State’s campus in Tempe in April. On “Demo Day,” the team peeked together at competing projects in a videoconference on five screens in four states. They didn’t expect to win, Graves said, but they were honored when they received the award.
“There were many interesting projects, but the thing that tipped the scales in their favor was the project management, the coordination and the dedication that they demonstrated,” Turaga said.
Graves expressed his enthusiasm on his blog: “My team’s senior design project won the Palais Senior Design Prize this semester!...WOOOHOOO!!!” Each team member received a prize of $100, and their names were engraved on a plaque on campus.
The team is hoping local businesses will help them develop their senior project and put it on the market.