An inside look at the STAR Campus.
An inside look at the STAR Campus.
Walking along the main hallway of the University of Delaware’s Science, Technology and Advanced Research Building is a bit like walking into the future. Except that the future appears to be here already.
The building, the centerpiece of the university’s new STAR campus, constructed on the site of the old Chrysler Assembly plant, retains some portions of the framework of the former Chrysler administration building, but there’s nothing 1950-ish going on inside.
Kathleen Matt, dean of the College of Health Sciences, explains the distinctively 21st century configuration as she escorts a visitor down a 270-foot corridor bathed in natural light. On the left are the clinics, on the right are the glass-walled research labs.
As students work in the labs, they find it easy to recognize the importance of their work. “You look out the windows [into the hallway] and you see the need,” Matt says, referring to the patients entering the university’s Nurse Managed Health Center and the Delaware Physical Therapy Clinic.
“This is a next-generation classroom,” Matt explains as she steps into the Pediatric Mobility Lab and Design Studio. Students are tinkering with modified toy cars and more complex motorized contraptions used to help toddlers with mobility problems get around the house or keep up with their peers on a playground. “It’s not a classroom at all. Students will learn, and practice what they learn, in a single room,” Matt says.
Next to the pediatric lab is the BADER Treadmill Lab where student and faculty researchers are developing methods of developing and improving prosthetic and orthotic devices, primarily for use by military personnel wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan and ultimately for the overall U.S. population.
The Pediatric Mobility Lab, guided by physical therapy professor Cole Galloway, and the BADER lab, overseen by Steven Stanhope, director of the BADER Consortium, are on the cutting edge of the university’s research efforts in the health sciences.
These are hardly isolated academic silos. Rather, they are programs that combine academics and research and involve significant partnerships with private, government and nonprofit institutions in Delaware and across the country.
“These are not traditional research laboratories in any sense of the word,” says Charles G. Riordan, the university’s vice provost for research, explaining the importance of such partnerships to an institution that wants to be considered within the top tier of the nation’s universities for scientific research. “We’re building an environment which allows our students to not only study in a basic discipline but also to do research that allows them to be much more successful when they get into the workplace.”
In very different ways and for very different demographics, each lab is addressing significant challenges to human mobility.
“When you’re talking about mobility, you’re talking about a human right, about independence,” Galloway says.
“Whether it’s exercise, or a lifestyle, you have to be mobile,” Stanhope says. “If you have the highest possible ability to function, you are at a significant advantage.”
The strength of those convictions is propelling Galloway and Stanhope, as well as everyone who researches, works or volunteers in their labs, to find new solutions that will benefit young children and wounded warriors.
In the pediatric lab, children with conditions like cerebral palsy, spina bifida or complications from premature birth receive assistance in getting from place to place.
The best-known of Galloway’s initiatives is Go Baby Go, which has grown into a nationwide network with the university as its hub. The program’s basic premise is that parents don’t necessarily have to spend thousands of dollars on custom devices so that their mobility-challenged child can get around like his peers. Parents can buy a child’s ride-on car at a major toy store and, by following the Go Baby Go manual, purchase materials at a hardware or building supply store for less than $100 to modify the car for a child’s use.
There are more than 20 Go Baby Go affiliates across the country, coordinated by volunteers who help parents modify their child’s car and with a local nonprofit organization providing additional support for families that need it.
Galloway travels regularly to workshops sponsored by Go Baby Go affiliates to explain the program, discuss the importance of mobility and offer advice on how to modify the cars.
Within the lab, Galloway is also working on some high-end robotics, in recognition of the reality that a 2-year-old, especially one with a handicap, might know where he wants to go, but might not have the skill to steer a vehicle to that location.
Galloway recently received a three-year, $515,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to study, among other things, how and whether the use of robots to enhance mobility in infants increases their ability to socialize with other children.
There are about 300,000 children a year nationwide who could benefit from a mobility intervention, Galloway says.
And the impact of that mobility is significant, he ways. “When you have a mobile child, you have a scared cat, you have a tired mom, and you want to put out a banner saying, ‘Beware: Mobile Children.’”
But there’s more to the mobility lab than ride-on cars. In the coming school year, fashion apparel majors will be spending time in the lab exploring ways of embedding mobility technology into children’s clothes, Galloway says.
During the summer, a group of students worked in the lab to create accessories for ride-on cars as well as other playground toys for children with motor impairments. They tested them on students at the university’s Early Learning Center.
“Kids with motor impairments and special needs can feel more a part of the playground environment. They become more social and grow positively,” says Matt Hersh, a junior mechanical engineering major.
“Instead of playing catch up and tagging along, these kids [with their ride-on cars] are now the center of attention,” says Christina Siebris, a senior at the Charter School of Wilmington. “They’re leading, they’re in the middle of arguments. They’re really part of the crowd.”
The BADER Consortium (that stands for Bridging Advanced Developments for Exceptional Rehabilitation) is a multi-pronged research project created through a $19.5 million Department of Defense grant to apply the latest research in prosthetics and orthotics to give wounded warriors the highest possible level of functional capacity.
Stanhope is directing the project, which also involves military and veterans hospitals, the Mayo Clinic, the Spaulding/Harvard Rehabilitation Hospital, two other universities and the Christiana Care Health System.
Most of the work done at the university is what’s known as “translational research,” engineering research that takes findings from basic science and finds ways to give them real-world applications.
Most of the servicemen who benefit from the work at the university are being treated at the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center (formerly the National Naval Medical Center) in Bethesda, Md., but some do come to Newark for treatment, Stanhope says.
Most have suffered lower extremity injuries, including loss of limbs, and many survived on the battlefield only because of technological advances in body armor and improved training in lifesaving and life-support technique that were not available in previous wars, Stanhope says.
The processes being developed at the university have been patented, but they have not been approved for widespread patient care. That will likely come, Stanhope explains, once the processes have been demonstrated successfully with the wounded warriors.
The treadmill in the center of the BADER lab is unique in that it has two treads, which can be adjusted to run at different speeds. Around the walls of the lab are cameras and other sensors that monitor the treadmill user’s every movement, saving the data into a server equipped with sophisticated computer-assisted design software. Once the prosthetic is properly sized, it is created with a 3D printer.
“We can customize the size and shape of a prosthetic or orthotic device, as well as its thickness and its bending characteristics, its springiness based on your height, weight and activity, and we can customize the shape, just for you,” Stanhope says.
To Stanhope, the work now under way is only the beginning.
For example, he says, imagine a robotic hand that can not only pick up a sandwich but actually feel the bread and determine whether it is fresh or stale.
“The technological advances that will come from this will be remarkably natural,” he says.
“Our job is to keep projecting the future,” Stanhope says. “When all the pieces come together, something very transformational occurs.”