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Nazareth College and RIT Join Forces

Left to right: RIT’s Dr. Elizabeth DeBartolo and engineering student Oyetunde Jolaoye demonstrate their balance tower to Dr. J.J. Mowder-Tinney and Dr. Sara Gombatto, both assistant professors of physical therapy.

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"Creativity is contagious,” said Albert Einstein. “Pass it on.” That feeling of creative contagion and the benefits that can incur from passing it on have been very much in evidence in the partnership formed between Nazareth College’s department of physical therapy and students and faculty from Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT). During the last five years, a variety of projects have emerged from this collaboration that are helping with the rehabilitation of Nazareth’s physical therapy clients.

In 2006, RIT received a grant from the National Science Foundation to aid people with disabilities. Elizabeth DeBartolo, associate professor of mechanical engineering at RIT, approached J.J. Mowder-Tinney, P.T., Ph.D., assistant professor of physical therapy at Nazareth, to see if Nazareth had any needs with which DeBartolo’s engineering students could help.

“We started with an upper extremities exerciser,” says Mowder-Tinney. “Something that clients could use when they weren’t at the clinic. I had made my own version with duct tape and a pole and it worked pretty well. But I thought we might be able to construct one that would be even better.”

The engineering students went to work, and their version, which boasted a great design, unfortunately broke on its second day of use. Not to be deterred, the students went back to work on it—and on a variety of other projects as well.

The RIT team, composed of electrical, mechanical, industrial, and computer engineering students, have worked on a balance tower with interactive features that renders balance improvement exercise more stimulating, a balance training bicycle that will help patients relearn cycling, a tool for raising and lowering parallel bars that are used in physical therapy, and a portable obstacle course. “These projects are great for our students because they see the end use,” said DeBartolo. “What they create goes directly to an individual and that makes it easy to point to it and say, ‘I’ve made a difference here.’”

Sara Gombatto, P.T., Ph.D., assistant professor of physical therapy at Nazareth, has also seen excellent results emerge from this collaboration. “The RIT students worked with us to create a mechanical spine that would validate the biomedical model we’ve been using in our work,” says Gombatto. “We’ve been developing the mechanical spine for a little over a year and it’s already enabled me to significantly expand on our research.”

This collaboration has even brought physical therapy clients into the mix at points. David Sprout, an engineer who is now quadriplegic as a result of spinal disease and who receives treatment at Nazareth’s physical therapy clinic, was invited to sit in on design reviews. “It was not always easy for J.J. to articulate what she wanted, as she’s not an engineer,” says Sprout, “so I kind of acted as the translator.” Mowder-Tinney was grateful for the help. “David knows engineer-speak,” she says, “and that’s what we needed.”

The RIT students have even helped the physical therapy department assess their space, analyzing traffic usage and other criteria, and have made suggestions that have already been implemented. This kind of collaboration spells opportunities for all who are involved and for the community at large. In short, it is a really good design.

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