URI engineering students to make prosthetic arms, hands for amputees in Colombia

Project funded by federal grant from 100,000 Strong in the Americas program

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Back row, left to right: URI engineering students Corvah Akoiwala, Cristian Witcher, Laura Parra and James Gannon. Front row: Sigrid Berka, director of the International Engineering Program at URI, Kunal Mankodiya, assistant professor of biomedical engineering at URI, and Silke Scholz, director of the Spanish International Engineering Program at URI. Another member of the team who is not present in the photo is Manbir Sodhi, professor of systems and industrial engineering at URI. Photo by Michael Salerno.

KINGSTON, R.I.—March 22, 2017—University of Rhode Island engineering students will travel to Colombia this summer to help some people drive a car or eat a meal with both hands.

Thanks to a $25,000 federal grant, the students will design and make prosthetic hands and arms for amputees in the South American country.

“It’s a meaningful and enriching project for our students, and we’re honored to receive this prestigious award,’’ says Silke Scholz, director of the Spanish International Engineering Program, or IEP, at the University. “The grant also affirms URI’s commitment to community service and global studies.”

The award is life-affirming for many patients in Colombia, which has the highest rate of amputees in the world because of the abundance of land mines from years of civil conflict.

“Our students will better the lives of those less fortunate—and learn engineering skills at the same time,” says Scholz. “What could be more fulfilling for a college student?”

This is the second grant URI has received from the “100,000 Strong in the Americas” program, an initiative of former President Barack Obama to increase the number of American students studying in Latin America to 100,000, and bring 100,000 students from Latin America to the United States by 2020.

In 2014, URI won a $50,000 grant to help launch academic programs and internships in Chile. URI’s International Engineering Program in Spanish applied for and won both grants. URI was one of seven colleges nationwide to receive a grant this year, and one of four in 2014.

“Receiving two of these grants in the last three years is a testament to the success of our International Engineering Program and devotion to global studies of our faculty and staff,” says Scholz. “URI community’s support for the project is amazing.”

The recent award—“Sustainable Prostheses: An All-Inclusive Approach to Designing in the Americas”—is a collaboration with SENA Centro Nacional Colombo Alemán in Barranquilla, in northern Colombia on the coast of the Caribbean Sea. The recent competition was funded by ExxonMobil Corp., and open to higher education institutions in Argentina, Brazil, Guyana and Mexico—in addition to Colombia.

The URI students, ranging from biomedical to mechanical engineering majors, and the Colombian students are already working together on the project through emails, Skype and phone calls. In June, faculty and students from the SENA organization will visit URI to work on designs for the prostheses. They are expected to create the artificial arms and hands with a 3-D printer, based on measurements and specifications from the patients in Colombia.

In August, the four URI engineering students, Scholz and Kunal Mankodiya, an assistant professor of biomedical engineering at URI, will travel to Colombia to refine the prostheses and work with the amputees. The students will live with local Colombian families to learn about the culture and language.

Three of the students—James Gannon of Coventry, Cristian Witcher of North Smithfield, and Laura Parra, who was born in Colombia and lives in Pawtucket—are in the Spanish International Engineering Program, a five-year dual degree program in Spanish and engineering. The fourth student, Corvah Akoiwala of Providence, whose parents are from Liberia, is a biomedical engineering major.

In November 2017, URI and the Colombian organization will present the project during the 20th annual Colloquium in International Engineering Education in Flagstaff, Ariz. Engineers and educators throughout the world are expected to attend.

Mankodiya is the URI engineering professor in charge of helping students design and build the artificial arms and hands. He has won praise internationally for his work on wearable technologies, like gloves that can monitor physical symptoms of Parkinson’s disease and socks that track walking difficulties, specifically for stroke patients.

“When I heard about this project I was really touched by the potential technology we can develop for people with amputated limbs,’’ says Mankodiya. “It’s fulfilling to work with a team from another country whose members speak another language but face similar challenges. It’s also fascinating to me that the artificial limbs will be created through virtual team collaboration between two countries. URI is truly making its mark on the world stage by reaching out to an international community that needs help.”

Students can’t wait to get started.

“This will be the first time I’ve traveled out of the country,” says Akoiwala. “It’s for a great cause. These are people who can’t do the basic things we can do in life. I feel good about giving back.”

Witcher, who was born in Ecuador and came to the United States when he was 3 years old, says he’s looking forward to returning to South America for such a worthy program.

“It’s a great opportunity,” he says. “I think the project will help us grow as students and members of the world community.”

URI expects the partnership to flourish. “Like the previous grant that opened doors for our students in Chile, we hope the project in Colombia does the same, paving the way for internships and faculty exchange programs,’’ says Scholz. “We’re excited to see where this takes us.”