LSU Mechanical Engineering Seniors Improve Wheelchair for Teen With Cerebral Palsy

May 4, 2023

15 year old student Emerson Allen smilingBATON ROUGE, LA – Walking into a classroom at St. Lillian Academy with tools and parts covering the floor next to a disassembled wheelchair makes it hard to imagine a finished product, let alone one that would have an incredible impact on one young girl’s life. As 15-year-old Emerson Allen patiently sat in a beanbag chair, four LSU Engineering seniors worked diligently to complete their project that would bring a smile to Allen’s face. 

For their LSU senior capstone project, Mechanical Engineering seniors Mason Cambre of Mandeville, La.; Rudy Stark of Lake Charles, La.; and Bernard Robichaux and Easton McGinn of Lafayette, La.; spent their last two semesters working with St. Lillian Academy in Baton Rouge to make improvements to Allen’s wheelchair. 

Allen has cerebral palsy, a congenital disorder caused by abnormal development of the part of the brain that controls movement, muscle tone, or posture, and affects nearly 500,000 children in the U.S. under the age of 18. In order to make life a little more comfortable for Allen, these four seniors remodeled her wheelchair to help improve her posture and muscles, which can be severely impacted by CP. Those with CP tending to not use their weaker or less coordinated limbs can develop muscle atrophy, which prevents the muscle from growing with the bone, causing the joint to become permanently fixed and paralyzed. 

“Typically, wheelchair seating is all posterior support, and it straps the user to the posterior support, so any postural adjustments are forward,” St. Lillian Academy Head of School Elissa McKenzie said. “What the LSU students are doing is creating an anterior lean with forward support so that when she uses her support, she activates her postural muscles instead of having a passive posture.”

“Emerson will lean her torso against the piece we’re installing, and as she leans back over time, it will improve her neck and upper back muscles, versus right now where she is kind of slouched over,” Cambre said. “She will also have a lower back pad to help with support.”

Students test the activation of Emerson's back muscles using elecrodes

“This support will develop the back and extensor muscles and help with posture, breathing issues, and scoliosis,” Stark added. 

In order to make sure its improvements are working, the LSU team places electrodes on Allen’s back that can measure muscle activity. Its new additions to the wheelchair will also be adjustable as her posture improves over time. 

“Hopefully, she’ll be able to adjust it in a month as her posture improves,” Cambre said. 

As Allen is placed into her improved wheelchair, she surveys the changes. When asked if she likes it, she replies, “I love it! Geaux Tigers!”

“This project is going to increase Emerson’s quality of life, and we haven’t really been able to do something like that throughout our engineering schooling,” Robichaux said. “Now we get to apply the things that we’ve learned.”

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Contact: Libby Haydel
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