None of the students who enrolled in “Mechatronics Laboratory” could have anticipated that they would end the term tasked with searching for solutions for a pressing ventilator shortage, incited by an unparalleled global pandemic.
The course — taught by Yale assistant professor of Mechanical Engineering and Material Science Madhusudhan Venkadesan — was originally designed to culminate with a competition, in which students would race self-balancing, two-wheeled robots of their own design. But as classes moved online and the global health scenario grew more dire, Venkadesan decided to steer the course in a different direction. For the final project, he asked students to analyze ways to automate ventilators and design control systems that could cater to the growing demand for them.
“I found it jarring to ask students to be thinking about a two-wheeled robot when they are facing potentially challenging circumstances and a constant barrage of news about the pandemic,” Venkadesan said. “So, we decided to blend needs and circumstances by switching to the controls project on ventilators. There are a large number of DIY ventilators that are coming up but little analysis of the automatic control needed for them.”
Venkadesan explained that while the previous project was conceptually different from the current one, “the principles involved remain the same,” adding that this was a testament to the strength of mathematical abstraction.
According to the Canvas announcement sent out to the class on March 23, students are now to write a term paper providing a thoroughly researched plan to partially automate a manual ventilator — the simplest kind of ventilator.
“The objective of the term report is to research solutions for adding minimal automation … [in a way] that is safe for the patient and drastically reduces the manual intervention required,” Venkadesan wrote in the announcement to the class. “This will also help caregivers reduce contact with infectious patients and still help them survive in the event of insufficient hospital facilities.”
Neelima Sharma GRD ’20, a teaching fellow for the course who helped shape the change in curriculum, explained that the challenge for the teaching staff was to “provide a structure for this new venture” and “rethink the lab structure … without compromising on the learning goals.”
Nevertheless, according to Sharma, the workload of the class was modified to take into account burdens that the pandemic has imposed on students. Now, she said, students can work on the final project either in groups or individually, and the timeline is flexible. In addition, while building a working prototype was not a requirement, Venkadesan told students who desired to do so that they would receive remote support.
Sharma also told the News that the project can be complex, since it has to account for several different subsystems, as well as variability between sick patients.
“The properties of the lungs of each patient are different, and the breathing requirements vary, which [demand] careful control of the pumped air volume and flow rate,” Sharma said. “The ventilator must either be smart enough to modulate its response according to the changing requirements or provide an alert for human intervention when needed.”
Sharma also pointed out that conducting these projects at home comes with some obstacles for students, with the principal difficulty being having to “design a simulator without any feedback from a real working system.”
Andrew Reardon ’21, an Electrical Engineering major taking the class, is working with his group on ventilator sensors that medical professionals could use to accurately monitor a patient’s physiological status. When asked about the role of the Yale community in the face of the pandemic, he told the News that he believes Yale engineers are called “Y-shaped” — meaning that they have breadth and depth, just like the shape of the letter Y — for a reason.
“This term embodies our principles of breadth, depth, and purpose,” Reardon said. “Innovative thinkers need to be called by their purpose to use breadth and depth of knowledge to address the issues presented by COVID-19.”
Pamela Banner ’20, a Mechanical Engineering major also enrolled in the class, is working with a team of four others to design a simulation lung that could be used to test ventilator prototypes.
“I was really pleased with the final project change because it responded to a current need in a highly responsible way,” Banner said. “I got the sense from professor Venkadesan that the intention was as much for us to culminate what we’ve learned in a project as it was to make a meaningful contribution to the issue at hand.”
Venkadesan said he hopes that the project will underscore “the power of mathematical modeling and the need for careful thought and analysis in engineering design” to those taking the class. He added that he feels “privileged to be teaching a group of students that are so exceptionally motivated.”
At the end of the term, Venkadesan hopes to make all papers publicly available. “The objective is cooperation with other efforts around the world while also gaining a rigorous educational experience in mechatronics,” he said.
The Society of Critical Care Medicine projects that approximately 960,000 coronavirus patients in the United States will need a ventilator at some point.
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