by Sharyn Kopf—Cedarville, Ohio
Cedarville, Ohio—Most of us take it for granted. You step into a pool, the ocean or your favorite swimming pond, push off the bottom, and begin to propel yourself through the water, your feet fluttering quickly and adeptly behind you.
Not so for 9-year-old Grace Norman, daughter of Cedarville professor of mechanical and biomedical engineering Dr. Tim Norman. Grace was born without a left foot, due to a congenital condition where inelastic amniotic bands formed around her ankle, which tightened, causing the total amputation of one foot, and another band led to the loss of part of a toe on her right foot. “It could have been much worse,” says her father. “She still has her tibia and fibula and can walk, even without her prosthetic foot.”
But he couldn’t help noticing that Grace had trouble swimming capably around the pool. He would watch her try to paddle with one inflexible foot that would actually propel her backwards, and came to the decision that something could be done for her.
“She doesn’t swim laps yet,” he says. “She’s a little girl who just wants to play in the water. I thought there would be a way to help her do that more efficiently.”
Norman wasn’t alone in his desire to create a prosthetic swim mechanism. Bob Johnson of Cedarville, Ohio, helped inspire the project. Johnson had wanted a similar device for his son, Andrew, who was missing his leg from above the knee. Says Norman, “It seemed that the need for a swim foot was certainly there.”
So, he decided to offer it as one of the options for final senior projects, partnering with John Brandt of Optimus Prosthetics, and Orpro Prosthetics and Orthotics, both of Dayton, Ohio. Three Cedarville University students took the challenge: Tim O’Donnell, Bill Obaker, and Andrew Parks, all mechanical engineering majors and 2007 graduates. O’Donnell appreciated the opportunity to be involved in a project that would actually help someone. “We learned how to meet a need.” The experience didn’t hurt his career either. Now employed at Caterpillar, Inc., in Peoria, Illinois, O’Donnell is certain his involvement contributed to landing the job.
“When I interviewed they were really interested in the swim foot project,” he says. “particularly in the process of designing it. And they had a copy of the report to look over during the hiring process.”
Obaker agreed with O’Donnell’s desire to work on something that would benefit someone, appreciating the opportunity to change a person’s life. But he also wanted a project that was new rather than one that is redone each year. “It involved a lot of innovations,” says Obaker. “There was nothing to replicate.”
What Norman and the students created was a swim foot that connects to Grace’s prosthetic socket where her foot normally attaches. When she gets in the water and pushes off, it deploys — extending just as if she were pointing her toe. The water causes it to stay open and flutter as she moves. They also made it strong enough for her to walk on it. This duality was a top goal of the team. You can see a video of the foot at work here.
“We did what we set out to do,” says Obaker. “It worked very well, though there is room for improvement.” For instance, Norman is still looking for a way to keep mud and dirt out.
For a young girl named Grace, however, it was pretty simple: Three college students spent a year working on something … just for her.
“You dedicate the better part of a year of your life to your senior design project,” says Parks, who is currently studying business in graduate school. “I wanted my time and energy to be spent on something that would have an impact beyond just my grade or a competition.”
Obaker, a safety analyst for Westinghouse Electric Company in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, appreciates the knowledge the project provided him. “I learned a lot about team chemistry and management — things I’ve been able to carry into my current job,” he says. “I would definitely do it again.”