A Prosthetic Hand for the Developing World

For their 2014 Mountaintop project, Lehigh students Arielle Weiner ’16, Danielle Taitt ’16 and Zakaria Hsain ’17 are working to develop a simple, low-cost and aesthetically pleasing hand prosthetic that could be used by residents of developing nations.

Rather than relying on electronics, the team aims to create a prosthetic that will use the movement of the body to help the wearer accomplish, for example, agricultural work.

In mid-July, the team shared an update on their progress with Lehigh videographer Stephanie Veto.



Mountaintop Mentor – Elizabeth Fifer


We asked Professor Fifer to give us some insight on the student project happening at Mountaintop this summer under her mentorship and she shared, in her own words, her thoughts on their progress to date and the hopeful outcome of their efforts.

The Mountaintop Project gives students a chance to work independently as a group with faculty guidance, but not direction, so the students can be as creative and wide-ranging as they want.

I applied for a grant for 4 interns to edit 9 short films my English 11 students made last semester about Wislawa Szymborska. They are making a longer film from the various parts, adding their own films and an interview with Joanna Trzeciak, who translated the collection Miracle Fair on which all the films are based.

The greatest challenge for them is technical–will they be able to create a coherent film from many disparate parts? I think with their high level of skill they will be able to meet this challenge.

I hope that they finish the project with a 20 minute film that serves as a celebration of Nobel Prize winner Wislawa Szymborska and an introduction to her beautiful poetry.

Mountaintop Mentor – John Spletzer

John spletzer Lehigh

A car that drives without a human driver, using lasers and sensors to respond dynamically to its environment.

A system that allows wheelchair users to get into and out of their vehicles, stow and retrieve their chairs, and drive while sitting in traditional auto seats that meet federal safety regulations.

A smart wheelchair that navigates on its own, with no human guidance, transporting users along city streets while avoiding stationary objects and adjusting to pedestrians and bicyclists.

And a small aircraft that studies climate change and tracks weather patterns as it glides endlessly through the jet stream, consuming no energy and again, requiring no human intelligence.

These are just some of the ways in which John Spletzer practices the art of engineering. Spletzer, associate professor of computer science and engineering, is director of Lehigh’s Vision, Assistive Devices, and Experimental Robotics Laboratory, or VADER Lab, for short.

This summer, Spletzer is mentoring two teams of students who are seeking to extend “intelligence” from vehicles to spaces. How can an intelligent living space sense and respond to your mood? How can it respond to collective behaviors? The 20 students in the project will make use of 3-D augmented reality, ambient intelligence, computer vision, embedded devices, mobile computing, networking and wecurity, robotics, and user interface design.

Here, Spletzer shares his thoughts on Mountaintop and the opportunities it is providing his students.

How/why did you get involved with this project/these students?

Smart Spaces Lehigh Mountaintop

A year or so ago, I got an alumni email from University of Pennsylvania about Max Mintz – a professor whom I really admire. He is very passionate about undergraduate research. Of course I started reminiscing, so I did a quick search to see what he was up to. Well among other things, he was heading up a National Science Foundation (NSF) Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) Site which provides internship opportunities for undergraduates in Penn’s robotics laboratory.

I did a little more digging about NSF REU Sites and thought it would be great to get one at Lehigh in computer science. However, awards are very competitive. Fortunately we were able to catalyze our research around the Mountaintop experience and proposed “The Lehigh Smart Spaces Project.” The idea was well received at NSF and in April 2014, we were awarded a grant of $340K for which I am Principal Investigator. The grant funds ten summer intern positions per year for the next three years. When combined with the interns supported by Lehigh, our department has roughly twenty students working at Mountaintop this summer.

What value does the space/approach to learning at Mountaintop do for this project in particular?

I’ve heard analogies to how things are set up to emulate Google or Facebook, but I view it a little bit differently — it reminds me of cooperative start-up spaces where you have a host of small start-up companies collected in the same space. One obvious benefit to this arrangement is the sharing of physical resources. However, the biggest benefit is leveraging the *people* resources. With over 100 researchers in one space, there’s a lot of intellectual diversity. We encourage the students to take advantage of it. Walk around. Talk to other groups. It’s amazing how much can be learned.

What challenges do you think your team will encounter during their project?

Smart Spaces 02 Lehigh Mountaintop

The biggest challenge is time. Everything takes longer than you think, and we only have 10 weeks. The good news is there are mechanisms at Lehigh (internships, independent study research, etc.) to continue the work beyond the summer if the students are interested. So, it doesn’t have to end in the Fall.

How Do You Want to Learn?

A trio of engineering students at Mountaintop tackle an education problem.


From left, David DiFrancesco, Chris Buglione and Jason Wu of Project Mathete.

When David DiFrancesco ’15 pitched his idea for a Mountaintop project that would explore how students live and learn, he quoted the Chinese thinker and philosopher Confucius, who expressed the belief that people must experience something themselves in order to really understand it.

“I hear and I forget. I see and I remember. I do and I understand.”

And so it is with Project Mathete (pronounced MAH-theh-teh), as DiFrancesco and fellow teammates Chris Buglione ’15 and Jason Wu ’15 set out to explore and to demonstrate how students learn best.

Using Mountaintop as backdrop and inspiration, the team has been surveying students and professors about educational issues, asking each other difficult questions, envisioning the classroom of the future and developing a classroom project to test their theories on learning.

“Our project is based around the idea that there’s some sort of disconnect between the way you learn in class and the way you learn in the real world,” says DiFrancesco. “And we kind of boiled that whole concept down to a few things. First off, we think that the way you learn in the real world is by doing.


David DiFrancesco sees disconnect in way people learn in the classroom and in the real world.

“And that’s the way everyone’s learning up here, by doing,” he says, glancing at the Mountaintop space. “So we kind of theorized, everything that everyone learns up here, they’re going to remember for a long, long, long, long time. It’s an experience that’s embedded in them.”

The students also are looking at the effectiveness of technology in the classroom. “Everything we do today, as students at least, is immersed in technology,” he says.

The project gets its name from the Greek word “mathete,” which means “to learn.”

When DiFrancesco was writing the proposal, he settled on the name as a way to spark interest and conversation among fellow students engaged in Mountaintop projects, while also knowing that the Greeks gave the world great teachers in the likes of Plato, Socrates and Aristotle. Besides, he says spiritedly, Project Mathete “sounded pretty awesome.”

The project teams up DiFrancesco, who is studying mechanical engineering in the Integrated Business and Engineering program; Buglione, a computer engineer; and Wu, who is studying mechanical engineering and product design in the Integrated Degree in Engineering, Arts and Sciences program.


Jason Wu says the students at Mountaintop are ‘exploring their own way’ out of problems.

The Mountaintop space is a fitting laboratory for the trio. Wu says Mountaintop facilitates learning because students are “exploring their own way out” of problems. “There’s a lot of autonomy….That way you actually learn by doing it yourself and making mistakes and learning from those.”

At the start, the trio surveyed students both at Mountaintop and online to assess the way students believed they were motivated to learn – whether by a thirst for knowledge, by change, by recognition or by a means to an end, like getting good grades and ultimately landing a job.

“Why does anyone learn anything?” asks Buglione. “Why do you go to class? What’s the reasoning behind it?

The top survey answer was “thirst for knowledge.”

However, over concerns whether students’ answers would truly reflect their motivations, and at Buglione’s urging, the team also asked an open-ended question in the initial survey – what inspires you? – then classified the students’ answers. And that’s where the survey results diverged.

“A lot more people are inspired by a means to an end than they would like to actually admit,” Buglione says.

Another survey gauged the effectiveness of technology in the classroom. Many of the students who responded didn’t think technology would help them to learn, while professors felt the use of technology in the classroom would help their students to learn more.

Surprised by the students’ responses, since it conflicted with their theory about the value of technology, the team conducted follow-up interviews. Students who didn’t think technology would help them told them that they had seen it implemented poorly.

“Technology for the sake of technology is a bad thing,” says DiFrancesco, who, like the other team members, felt the survey responses were somewhat skewed because of students’ bad experiences.


Chris Buglione asks, ‘Why does anyone learn anything?’

With the surveys done, the students now want to assess whether a “doing” activity and technology would facilitate learning, particularly in engineering. They plan to focus on a single course, MECH 102 (Dynamics) and a difficult and confusing concept taught in the course—Coriolis acceleration, the apparent deflection of moving objects when viewed in rotation.

“Can we teach this course better?” asks Buglione. “Or, can we add things to this course to make it better?”

The students will set up four mock classes: one as control group, another with technology added, one with a “doing” activity, and one with both technology and a “doing” activity added. Then, the students will test both comprehension and retention among participants.

And what happens if their theories on learning don’t pan out?

“One of the big things about this project,” says Buglione, “is that even if we don’t find anything, or if all of our preconceptions are wrong, it will still be a worthwhile result because we will have found out that all our preconceptions were wrong.”

Says DiFrancesco, “Everything we’ve done has led us to this point…If it doesn’t matter where you end, there are not mistakes to be made really. It’s just things you can figure out how to do better.”

Photos by Christa Neu

Story by Mary Ellen Alu 


At Play at Mountaintop

Video by Stephanie Veto

A group of students at Mountaintop have been designing an interactive space for kids in a project they call “Shapeshifter.”  Before summer’s end, the students will build their design, which will change and shift shape as kids play and interact with the structure.

The project is an offshoot of work done by an undergraduate team for the 2013 Annual Playhouse Design Competition. After completion of the playhouse design, mentors Wesley Heis and Nik Nikolov, assistant professors of architecture in the Department of Art, Architecture and Design, saw an opportunity for students to develop new ideas in play space design as a Mountaintop experience.

Heis and Nikolov are combining their individual specializations in product design and architecture to support this multidisciplinary team of design, engineering and business students.The team includes Matthew Wetzel ’15, Luke Genthe ’15, Elizabeth Phillips ’15, Tess Fleming ’14, Benjamin Gingold ’15, Michelle Vollmuller ’17 and Dylan Petruskevicius ’15.


Tackling Indoor Air Pollution

Inside a mud hut, students seek a solution for developing countries.

The mud hut rises on the slope of a hill at the Mountaintop campus—a 6-by-8-foot replica of a cooking hut typically found in developing countries such as Uganda.

In searing heat, over the course of several June days, a group of students painstakingly built the hut. It is at the center of their search for ways to ventilate cooking huts naturally and to reduce the indoor air pollution that plagues much of the rural developing world.

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Students use their feet to mix clay, sand, water and sawdust to make the mud adhesive for the hut. Photo courtesy of Breena Holland

The students toted tree limbs from a nearby wooded area to weave the hut’s frame and dug holes in the rocky soil to anchor the wood posts. Using their feet, they mixed clay, sand, water and sawdust in a kiddie pool to make mud adhesive for the walls. Then, by hand, they carefully built the 7-foot walls with the mud, slowly adding layers around the wood posts and tree limbs. On top they set a metal sheet roof.

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A mud adhesive forms the walls of the hut. Photo courtesy of Breena Holland

“We are trying our best to make it as close to a cooking hut that would be created in developing nations, more specifically, in Uganda,” says graduate student and social scientist Marie Theresa Mejia, one of six students on the “Innovation in Ventilation” team. “We’re also finding ways to replicate it that would allow us to work in the time frame that we have.”

The combined engineering and social science research project, under way this summer at Mountaintop, not only explores practical solutions to indoor air pollution but also analyzes the underlying social issues that lead families to burn wood for fuel.

Numbers from the World Health Organization tell the story:

  • Half of the world’s population, almost all in developing countries, burn biomass—wood, animal dung and crop residues—and coal to cook their food and heat their homes.
  • Of those “forgotten” 3 billion people, more than 4 million die prematurely from illnesses linked to the pollutants emitted from the indoor burning of bio mass fuels.
  • More than half of the premature deaths among children under age 5 stem from pneumonia caused by the soot that the children inhale indoors.

“When you breathe in black carbon, this tiny particulate matter, it causes respiratory disorders or it triggers respiratory problems, like asthma attacks,” says mentor Breena Holland, associate professor of political science and a participating faculty member in Lehigh’s Environmental Initiative. “There’s a lot of research linking exposure to fine particulate matter with pregnancy outcomes, cancer, heart disease, many significant health problems.”

Also mentoring the team is Kelly Austin, assistant professor of sociology and anthropology, a participating faculty member in the global studies program, and director of the health, medicine and society program.


Marie Theresa Mejia, Kellyn M. McCarthy, Yiliqi, and Amber Shrum slowly apply the mud to build the walls of the hut, a replica of a cooking hut found in Uganda. Photo courtesy of Breena Holland

With the hut now built outside of Building C at Mountaintop, the students will set up a cookstove inside, using a ring of rocks they unearthed while digging holes for posts.


Students test the air quality while cooking inside the hut. Photo by Christa Neu

Wearing face masks to protect them from breathing in harmful matter, they will start a wood fire and boil water. While starting and maintaining the fire to boil the water, they will use hand-held black carbon monitors to measure the level of the tiny, black particles being released into the air by the fire.

In addition to Mejia, the students involved in the project include Amber E. Schrum ’16, who is pursuing an integrated degree in engineering, arts and sciences (IDEAS); Dylan M. Friedgen-Veitch ‘16, environmental engineering; Shane McDevitt ’15, IDEAS; graduate student Yiliqi, environmental policy design; and graduate student Kellyn M. McCarthy, sociology.

The air quality monitoring will continue as the students naturally ventilate the hut in different ways, strategically placing holes in the mud walls for good air flow and perhaps cutting out a window. They’ll also try raising the height of the cookstove to determine if that would make a difference in protecting people from breathing in the particulate matter.

So far, global solutions have focused on replacing the traditional cookstoves in the rural developing world with cleaner, more efficient ones. Team member Schrum says, however, that new research suggests the “cleaner” cookstoves may not actually improve the air quality in the huts as initially believed.

Also, many families wind up selling their new cookstoves to get something they feel they need more, Holland said, or they do not easily adapt to the new technology.


Dylan Friedgen-Veitch adds to the wall of the cooking hut. Photo by Christa Neu

“So poor people are still using the same technology they’ve always used, which is open fire burning in many cases.”

To keep with cultural norms and to provide low-cost solutions, the Mountaintop team is exploring whether an easily implemented natural ventilation system instead could reduce people’s exposure to black carbon in the huts and reduce the health risks of burning bio mass.

“Our intervention would not be providing them with something new in a way that their traditional values, their traditional way of doing things, are going to be completely taken out of the picture,” Mejia says. “Another thing to keep in mind is that many of the kitchens there have been built for years, so our intervention is something they can do without having to take their structures down and rebuild.”

The students may try cutting a window in the hut to determine whether it’s practical and whether it would make a difference in the inside air quality. In consultation with a contact in Uganda, Schrum said, they learned that cooking huts get built without windows because it’s cheaper and easier to not have to frame for a window. Plus, she said, windowless huts provide protection from torrential downpours and animals.

As part of the project, the students also are examining the social rights issues connected to the indoor air pollution problem.

“We dove into this project and we were able to look into whatever topic we wanted to look into,” Mejia says.

They are examining:

  • The effect of gender roles on people’s health, given that women and children traditionally handle household chores.
  • The effect of structural adjustment policies that emerged during the debt crisis in the mid-1980s as a way for poor countries to pay back lender countries. (What leads people to burn wood to cook in the first place?)
  • The impact on neonatal and infant mortality.

“The issue of indoor air pollution is a multi-faceted issue,” Mejia says. “It’s not simply an issue you should care about because of the health issues but also because it’s connected to so many other things, such as economic status, general social status in terms of land property rights, female empowerment. It’s a public health issue but also a social rights issue.”


From left, Shane McDevitt and and Dylan Friedgen-Veitch work on the hut. Photo by Christa Neu



Photo by Christa Neu

Story by Mary Ellen Alu

More photos by Christa Neu are available here.

A Toy Story


Shannon Varcoe ’15 has created a wooden building-block toy that she hopes to market. “In an age of electronic toys, it brings it back to the basics. You really can’t be bad at this,” she says.

As a kid, Shannon Varcoe never read the manuals that came with her toys and games.

Simply put, she didn’t like following instructions.

So it’s fitting that Varcoe ’15 has created a wooden building-block toy that doesn’t come with a manual or instructions. “You let your creativity tell you what to do,” she says.

Funny thing, though: Varcoe didn’t set out to make a toy when she put together a wooden sculpture for a design class in her sophomore year. But the other students in her class started playing with the notched wooden pieces. And when she took some of the pieces home from college, a cousin who has Attention Deficit Disorder began playing with them too.

It got her thinking: “Could this be something?”

Today, Varcoe can be found at Mountaintop, in Launch Bay C, building on her idea. She is making more wooden prototypes, experimenting with different sizes, cuts and shapes. She is trying to figure out the number of pieces, and the lengths of those pieces, that should go into a wooden building-block set that she can sell.

She is also trying to come up with a name for her toy, a target market, and branding materials.

With hopes too of inspiring and helping those with ADD and Attention Deficient Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), she is studying how children with learning disabilities play and learn. She is designing her wooden blocks with those kids in mind.

“It’s very hands on,” says Varcoe, who is pursuing an Integrated Degree in Engineering, Arts and Sciences (IDEAS). “There’s really no wrong answer when you’re building with it. You can build whatever you want, with however many pieces you want.”

The toy’s pieces are made of unfinished, natural wood that vary in length, with angled cuts that allow for each piece to fit together. Though the toy is simple in design, she says, the structures that can be built are anything but simple. “It’s hard to build the same thing twice,” she says.

So far Varcoe has made more than 100 pieces with cuts of different angles. As she plays with the pieces, building around space, she has made both the abstract—which can hang as art work—as well as the practical, such as a laptop stand.

“In an age of electronic toys, it brings it back to the basics,” says Varcoe, describing her toy as she works with wooden pieces at her space in Launch Bay C. “You really can’t be bad at this.”

In the design class that got things rolling, Varcoe’s assignment was to create a sculpture inspired by three words pulled from a hat. She drew the words “small,” “minimal,” and “prop.” Varcoe had to work with paper, then poplar. She wound up cutting angled grooves in the wood as part of the function of her design.

When her cousin later played with the pieces, she says, “he was just combining them in all different ways and building different things.” He liked them so much that his mother eventually called her to ask for more pieces, which Varcoe gave as a Christmas gift. He also etched into them with wood-burning.

After the early interest, Varcoe began focusing on her project and taking the courses that could help her in her venture. Last year she won a first place in the Eureka! Social Ventures competition sponsored by the Baker Institute for Entrepreneurship, Creativity and Innovation. She also tested her toy at a Mini Maker Faire at Steel Stacks in Bethlehem, produced by the Baker Institute, where she found that children would instinctively pick up the pieces of her toy and play.

“I was really fascinated by the teamwork involved when kids played with it,” says Varcoe. “Kids who were strangers to each other were helping each other build things, or each kid was building something and figuring out ways to connect it. So that was really interesting.”

At the Mini Maker Faire, one child created a stool, then promptly sat on it. A mother and daughter competed to see who could build the tallest structure.

Varcoe took note of how many pieces the children used in their play—research into how many pieces, and what pieces, she should include in a set. She may do more research with children to try to come up with a name for the toy. “I haven’t found anything that fits what it is,” she says.

Through their play, kids can learn aspects of geometry, engineering and architecture. Varcoe says they can learn not only how to collaborate with design but also how to get something to be sturdy, stable and balanced. Kids might build something tall, then find that by turning their creation on its side they will make it look different.

Varcoe, who always wanted to be a toy inventor, has noticed that parents too have been eager to join in, perhaps out of nostalgia for the wooden toys they played with as kids. But, she says, they soon seem to realize that the toy is much different than something like Lincoln Logs and much more complex than they might have initially thought. She hopes she has created a toy that will be lasting.

Meanwhile, says Varcoe, “It’s been really fun and rewarding just to see people play with it and enjoy it.”

Photo by Christa Neu

Story by Mary Ellen Alu

Mountaintop in Motion – Fish Arrive


aquaponics at Mountaintop

Photo by Christa Neu

aquaponics at Mountaintop

Photo by Christa Neu

The tilapia that are the stars of the Lehigh Aquaponics project have arrived.

Kimberly Hetrick ’14, one of the four students on the team, picked them up in Carlisle last week and delivered them to Mountaintop in a bright blue bucket.

The students aim to cultivate the fish while growing plants in water. You can read more about the project in a story at the Lehigh News Center.

The team also planted the seeds for the lettuce they hope to grow.


Photo by Stephanie Veto


 Photos by Stephanie Veto

Helping Kids with 3-D Printing



When Lehigh students Colleen Perry and Elena Ramirez saw an emotional video of a 2-year-old girl who could not move her arms until aided by a 3-D printed device, they knew their mission – to similarly use 3-D technology to help disabled children.

Putting out a call on Facebook for a mechanical engineer to help in their endeavor, they found fellow student Jeff Peisner ’15, who is joining them at Mountaintop this summer to create 3-D printed devices for use in pediatric rehabilitation.

“That’s where we think the technology is more needed,” said Ramirez ’15, in explaining why the group is focusing on children’s needs.


Colleen Perry and Elena Ramirez make an adjustment at the 3-D printer at Mountaintop.

Enter Good Shepherd Rehabilitation Network, an Allentown-based facility that offers rehabilitative care to children—and adults—who have physical and cognitive disabilities, injuries and complex medical needs. The network has programs for those who suffered strokes, as well as for those who have had amputations or suffered sports, brain and spinal cord injuries.

Coincidentally, in the months before the students had pitched their project, John Grencer ’79, administrative manager, Technology Department, and strategic business planner at Good Shepherd, had turned to his alma mater, Lehigh University, for help in best utilizing 3-D technology in rehabilitative work.

Part of Grencer ’s job is to look at new technologies that Good Shepherd should consider adopting. The network, for example, is the largest clinical users of the Ekso Bionics exoskeleton, a robotic device that helps those with paralysis to stand and to walk.

Like the Lehigh students, Grencer got excited about the potential of 3-D printing after reading and learning about the technology. “That got me thinking,” said Grencer.  Could Lehigh students demonstrate the potential of the technology to Good Shepherd’s doctors and therapists?


Colleen Perry, left, and Elena Ramirez work through ideas at their Mountaintop space.

“3D printing has the potential to revolutionize the medical field,” said Perry ’15.

Lehigh professors and mentors linked the students and Good Shepherd. At first, Perry, Ramirez and Peisner wanted to 3-D print prosthetic hands for children, knowing they could easily design them on a computer, customize devices, and make them much more cheaply than high-tech designs.

But after talking with hand and occupational therapists at Good Shepherd, they quickly came to a realization: There’s less of a need for prosthetic hands and more of a need for exoskeletons, or devices that work around body parts, to help children who lose full or partial movements of their hands, possibly after suffering strokes.

“We wanted to expand our project to help more people,” said Perry, who, like Ramirez, is studying biomedical engineering.

Strokes in children are more common than people may think, Ramirez said. An estimated 6 in 100,000 children are affected nationwide, according to the National Stroke Association. Good Shepherd treats about 10 to 15 youngsters with strokes each year, both as inpatients and outpatients, Grencer said.


From left, Jeff Peisner, Elena Ramirez and Colleen Perry hope to create 3-D-printed exoskeletons that can one day be used in pediatric rehabilitation.

The students refocused their Mountaintop project and are now working on making prototypes for 3-D-printed exoskeletons that they hope can one day be customized for children and used in their rehabilitative therapy.  They plan to share the results of their project with interested physicians and therapists at Good Shepherd in late July.

“An exoskeleton can go around the hand and facilitate some kind of movement in hopes of molding the brain to relearn the movements that the hand does,” Ramirez said.

Like prosthetics, exoskeletons can be highly complex and expensive, and they usually do not come in sizes small enough for children, the students said.  Plus, for children who are still growing, inexpensive 3-D-printed devices make more sense.  “It’s just not realistic for a child to be buying a new (high-tech) device that costs thousands of dollars every six months,” Ramirez said.

The students are creating their designs on laptops, then fabricating the specialized parts on a 3-D printer in a backroom at Building C at Mountaintop.


Jeff Peisner, who is studying mechanical engineering, works on a prototype.

Peisner explained that they will experiment with rubber bands and strings in their creations to help translate children’s wrist movements into finger movements.

“We’re assuming our patients have wrist movement,” Peisner said. “While this might not affect all children with strokes because some might not have any wrist movement, it’s really all we can do right now to assure that (the device) stays mechanical.”

As they innovate and learn, they’re optimistic they can make a difference.

Photos by Christa Neu

Story by Mary Ellen Alu