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Project Abigail

Project Abigail Inspires

After celebrating the grand finale of an unforgettable project, University of Tulsa engineering students and faculty want to expand their research on designing and developing devices for those with special needs.

It started in 2006 when Kaveh Ashenayi, professor of electrical engineering, assigned his senior-level class a unique design project: build a custom electric wheelchair that would increase mobility for Abigail Laipple, an eight-year-old girl with cerebral palsy.

TU students took the project to heart, working on various versions of Abigail’s chair for two years, well after they had completed Ashenayi’s course. Alumni, friends, and corporate sponsors rallied behind the project and raised about $15,000 for specialty equipment.

“These students have spent more than 2,000 hours outside of the classroom perfecting the design of this project,” Ashenayi said. “Their dedication has been amazing.”

TU electrical engineering students combined software and technology so that Abigail could interact with her world through switches and a screen that she can access easily. Some of the chair’s specially designed features include a microprocessor that drives the chair with push buttons controlled by Abigail’s head movements; safety sensors that detect obstacles or stairs to automatically stop the chair; and a laptop that allows Abigail to choose which movie she wants to watch, which game she’d like to play, and which one of her favorite Elvis tunes she’d like to hear.

“The doctors told me she wouldn’t walk and she wouldn’t talk, and they’ve found a way for her to walk and talk,” Meg Laipple, Abigail’s mother, told reporters at a special reception on November 29, 2007 celebrating the project. “This is an answer to prayer.”

At the reception, Kyle Smith (BS ’05) on behalf of his fellow employees at Dresser-Rand, made a special presentation to Abigail and her family to inaugurate this new phase in her life. Employees at Dresser-Rand raised money to buy the family a new digital camera and accessories to replace one that had been stolen.

“We hope that Abigail’s family can now capture her development and her new-found independence with the chair,” Smith said. “Abigail, her family, and the TU engineers involved in this project are an inspiration for us all.”

The success of “Project Abigail” has encouraged TU professors to build on their experience working with her to help others in the community. TU electrical and mechanical engineering departments are coordinating on a grant from the National Science Foundation’s Research to Aid Persons with Disabilities program.

“Some of the things TU students have designed for Abigail don’t exist in any other chair available on the market,” said Theodore Manikas, assistant professor of electrical engineering. “We want to explore how these breakthroughs can help others.”

Outside support is also growing for TU’s research. The departments are working with St. Francis rehabilitation center in Broken Arrow, Oklahoma, and Sunrise Medical to aid their future design efforts. They also recently received financial support from the Assistive Technology Development Program of the American Society for Engineering Education (ASEE) and the National Institute for the Severely Handicapped (NISH).

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