A team of students at Clemson University in South Carolina, USA have developed an incubator blanket aimed at reducing the number of infant deaths, as part of a broader project to improve the lives of those living in the East African nation of Tanzania.
Tens of thousands of babies die each year because of the prevalence of improper warming methods in the country. Students from the Incubasic team have developed a prototype of the Life Blanket, an individualised heating pad made from locally available materials that regulates the temperature of newborns. It is 90 per cent cheaper than traditional incubators, easily repairable and features a temperature-monitoring thermistor that regulates the ideal amount of heating for the blanket. Three LED lights display the temperature: blue for cold, green for in-range and red for too hot.
The team has launched a crowdfunding campaign through Indiegogo.com to raise start-up money and expand testing trials. The project brings together students from several different majors. E&T spoke to the two lead engineers, both senior students: mechanical engineer, Justin Showghi, and bio-engineering major Andrew Hargett.
What stage is the project at now?
Andrew Hargett (AH): The main mechanism for the blanket has been constructed and tested, verifying that the warming blanket is functional. Recent progress has been made in the conceptualising of additions and changes to be made to the current unit. From this point, we need to add other functional parts, such as heart rate and pulse-oximetry capabilities.
What have been the best parts of working on this project?
Justin Showghi (JS): Working alongside other engineering students has been pretty incredible. The project stems from a bioengineering undergraduate research class and, as a mechanical engineering student, spending time in a different department has broadened my educational experience. Being able to work on a project with so much potential and meaning alongside people who have very different ideas and problem-solving approaches than me has been an experience I’ll take with me for a long time.
AH: The highlight for me would be travelling to Tanzania to gain more insight into the problems developing countries face. I spent a month volunteering at hospitals, which was a wonderful life experience that changed my whole perspective on the rest of the world.
What skills have you acquired?
JS: It has definitely strengthened my ability to adapt to constantly changing circumstances, environments and criteria, which I think goes back to the foundation of what engineers are trained to be and that’s problem solvers. Because nothing like this has ever been made before, the project is very open-ended in terms of what capabilities we want to add to it and what types of things we want to limit.
AH: This project has been a great hands-on experience to apply technical skills learned in classes, including circuitry, design and testing. However, I think this type of design group also really fosters creativity. We are allowed to try to develop unique solutions for problems that otherwise are unaddressed. When given a problem faced by healthcare in developing countries, we have been encouraged to think outside the box for solutions that otherwise might never be found. I think this aspect can be lost in both classes and industry in developed countries which are so driven by standardisation and structure. As an engineer, I think creativity should be added as a focus of development, which this project has really allowed.
What are your aims and ambitions?
JS: This undergraduate research class has without a doubt changed my perspective on what I could do after college. I would love to work in the medical industry, potentially designing prosthetics for resource-poor settings. I think most environments where you get to improve someone’s quality of life with prosthetics would be a win.
AH: After graduation, I plan to pursue an MSc in bio-engineering. From here, I don’t know where life will take me. I will likely begin looking towards working within industry, but I'm open to other opportunities as they come!
How important are projects like this for students?
JS: They are necessary to any student’s education. We’re put in an environment where we get to apply all the theories and hypotheticals we’re taught in class lectures and course textbooks and apply them to instruments that are not only tangible and relevant, but are helping improve or potentially save a life. There is only so much you can learn on a subject without putting it to practice and these projects simply provide the missing piece of our engineering curriculum, all the while collaborating with other engineers who are equally creative as they are brilliant.
AH: This type of project came about from an undergraduate research program known as Creative Inquiry - one of the deciding factors for my decision to come to Clemson. These programs, offered across all disciplines, offer a unique experience for work outside the classroom. I've been allowed to bring my own ideas and projects to the table, then taking control of the progress and direction. Through this, I've had to do a lot of outside study to learn technical skills and knowledge not covered in my classes. I would highly encourage every student to seek out these types of opportunities, as they give a sense of meaning and accomplishment to everything I've worked for in school.