A team of engineering students from Yale and other universities won big at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute’s Engineering Innovation for Society competition this past weekend, splitting the $12,500 grand prize for developing a technology to assist people with cerebral palsy.

“I’ve always seen engineering as something that’s meant to help people,” said Andrew Reardon ’21, one member of the winning team. “I have family members who are doctors. With medicine, they go out every day and make the world a better place. With engineering, it’s different. It has to be more directed and thought out and purposeful.”

The competition, held for the first time this year, was organized in conjunction with the Albany Center for Disabilities Services. Over the course of three days, seven competing teams composed of university students from all over the Northeast were challenged with seven different problems that handicapped people face in their daily routines.

Cerebral palsy is a central nervous system disorder that affects the movement and coordination of those afflicted. Although symptoms vary across patients, one particularly visible — and debilitating — manifestation of the disease is hypertonic hands. Shortened muscles cause patients’ hands to clench together, rigid and unmoving. This condition presents two problems: First, aids cannot clean patients’ hands, causing a buildup of bacteria and dirt. Second, patients’ fingernails grow over time and begin to pierce the patients’ palms.

Splints, which can hold a hypertonic hand open, provide a partial solution. However, caregivers must pry patients’ brittle fingers open in order to fit the hand to the splint. If this is done too quickly, the patient’s muscles can rip, causing extreme pain. Reardon’s team was given the challenge of developing a portable, automated and cost-effective prototype to open the hand slowly for the splint.

Along with the other students on his team, Reardon created a hypertonic grip expander to do just that. After contemplating two other models, the team settled on a copper tube, placed in the hand, that could gradually inflate a latex balloon. Once the balloon was inflated, the splint could be inserted to assist caregivers.

Over the first two days of competition, the team calculated the rate at which air could be pumped so as not to injure the patient. They also proposed a feedback mechanism to detect minute changes in pressure, connected to a microcontroller that could adjust compression in response. On the final day, the team went on to create a prototype of their design, minus the feedback system, and then presented it to the panel of judges.

“We were really confident in our design,” Reardon said. “We nailed it.”

Two other Yalies — Aydin Akyol ’19 and Valeria Villanueva ’20 — also attended the event, though neither was on Reardon’s team.

“Using technology, design and innovation to improve and help save lives is really important to me, so it was only natural that I applied to the competition,” Akyol said.

His team worked on a folding umbrella for cars that would protect handicapped people from the rain as their wheelchairs are moved in and out of cars.

Now that the competition is over, the problems that Reardon and Akyol’s teams faced are considered “solved.” Although it would be possible to patent their technology, Reardon said his team believes the application process is too lengthy. Thus, for now, the hypertonic grip expander will remain conceptual.

Around one in 323 American children have cerebral palsy, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Brianna Wu | brianna.wu@yale.edu