A Magazine from California State University, ChicoFall 2016 Issue

Tito's Left Hand

Tito's Left Hand

Students Forge Friendship by Engineering Prosthesis

Everyone has a purpose. Go find yours.

The most basic tasks were possible—grasp a pencil, pick up a paper, throw a ball.

What Albertito Salomon wanted, however, was to be able to do those things with one hand.

The 16-year-old Sacramento teen was badly burned in an accidental house fire as a toddler, sustaining third-degree burns over 85 percent of his body and experiencing the amputation of all fingers. He has since undergone more than 60 surgeries to improve his mobility and quality of life, thanks to Shriners Hospitals for Children-Northern California.

An aspiring engineer, he lives with his parents and younger brother Emmanuel. Better known as Tito, the teen lives by the motto, “Everyone has a purpose. Go find yours.”

Tito Salomon, left, laughs with Chico State student Brett Smith as they work on Salomon’s prosthesis.

Tito Salomon, left, laughs with Chico State student Brett Smith as they work on Salomon’s prosthesis.

The Chico State Connection

Ten years ago, former civil and mechanical engineering professor Charlie Roberts began volunteering with children with disabilities to give them outdoors experiences such as hunting and fishing.

“For most of them, their life is spent figuring out how to pay for being disabled—it’s expensive,” he said. “And the fun things in life get tossed overboard.”

That’s how he met Tito. When he learned the teen wanted to become a robotics engineer, Roberts knew instantly that he wanted to support that dream, and the University became the vehicle to make it happen.

“I obviously knew I was different in the way I did things, but I always heard about guys doing awesome stuff with electronics, like bionic hands or robots, and that got my attention,” said Tito, whose favorite subject in school is science. “I decided I wanted to learn how to do the stuff they do.”

Chico State is home to the nation’s first bachelor’s degree program in mechatronic engineering to be accredited by the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology, Inc. (ABET). Even today, it is just one of two universities in the US to offer an ABET-accredited mechatronics degree, a new discipline that combines the skills of mechanical, computer, and electrical engineers.

“It’s the best undergraduate robotics program around,” Roberts said.

He initiated a project in spring 2015 for Chico State students to work with and mentor Tito in the engineering of a basic educational device. As Roberts saw it, the partnership that evolved was more to support Tito’s dream of becoming an engineer than to produce an actual product.

“It benefits the students to get experience. But all I hope is that it helps Tito bridge his teen years and achieve his dream,” Roberts said. “At the end of the day, they are tightening bolts and checking linkages, but they’ve created a project that’s pushing them intellectually and creating friendships.”

A Hand for Tito

The first project Roberts assigned was for students in his engineering class to 3D-print a robotics-based tool for Tito, to expose the teen to engineering at the collegiate level and build a bridge to Chico State. But the team of students, including William Cortez (Mechatronic Engineering, ’16), took the concept further.

If they could print a simple tool for Tito, why not a prosthesis? And so they did.

“When Charlie called and told my parents about it, I was really excited,” Tito said. “That they would do an artificial hand for me was not only cool, but I liked the equipment and all that stuff seemed futuristic."

The first prosthetic was a simple mechanism. Using plastic parts and rubber strands, they built a right hand that opened and closed its fingers using wrist motion to guide mechanics—nimble and strong enough for Tito to throw a ball for the first time.

“He grabbed it and threw it and his dad caught it,” Cortez said, recalling it was a life-changing moment not just for Tito but for him, too. “It was something none of us can explain. It’s a father-son thing to play catch with your kid. I realized this kind of engineering is something I can do for a long time.”nough for Tito to throw a ball for the first time.

In fall 2015, Roberts turned to engineering students once again. He drafted a proposal for the Capstone Design Program in the College of Engineering, Computer Science, and Construction Management.

The program partners senior-level engineering students with industry sponsors to design, build, and test solutions to real-world problems, gaining valuable experience as they apply theory to practice.

As project sponsor, Roberts’ challenge was to build a left hand that could give Tito greater independence. He wanted the device to be controlled by muscle sensors and robust enough to handle the activities of a teenage boy.

When it was time for graduating seniors to apply for capstone projects, William, Douglas Smith (BS, Mechanical Engineering, ’16), Brett Smith, (BS, Mechatronic Engineering, ’16), and Peter Matulich (BS, Mechatronic Engineering, ’16) edged out all other applicants.

“You couldn’t help but want to be a part of it,” Douglas said.

Tito and his family came to campus in May to watch the Chico State students present their fi nal for the Capstone Design Program.

Tito and his family came to campus in May to watch the Chico State students present their fi nal for the Capstone Design Program.

Driven By Design

For nine months, the team’s lives were consumed with Tito’s Left Hand. They wanted a computer-driven system that would capitalize on muscle signals. They wanted to give Tito the ergonomic precision he’d never had.

The students asked themselves, “What do we try to do every day that we take totally for granted?” Brett said.

The team knew Tito had dormant but functional muscles that could fire signals to phantom digits. If he flexed, the muscles would contract, and by putting an electrode between the muscles points, they could pick up that microvolt of energy.

With operational amplifiers, they could increase the volts to power a motor system and custom circuit board, which would then drive finger movement.

The prosthesis also needed to be affordable. A state-of-the-art hand can easily cost upwards of $100,000. Their budget was less than $3,000.

They were limited by space and motor size. And there was a huge emphasis on safety, given the device’s motors and high-energy-dense batteries.

“The nightmare would be something fails and he is subjected to more burns,” Brett said.

So they always tested on themselves first.

The team became recognizable in class and at their favorite coffee shops for the electro-magnetic patches that seemed permanently affixed to their forearms. They tried the motor system on as best they could for weight, heat, and comfort.

“We turned into a team of perfectionists because, in meeting Tito, we wanted to make the best product we could for him,” Peter said.

It meant a lot to Tito that the team cared so much about him.

“They were different. They treated me like a regular kid,” he said. “When I go to other places, I can tell what people think by the way they react or act around me. It was a nice change that the guys came over here to have fun and learn and teach me and do this project alongside me.”

Engineering Ergonomics

William was the team’s motivator. Brett was the mad scientist, and Peter the marketer and public speaker. Douglas was the team sage, adding calm and reason to an often frustrating process.

“There is no cookbook for this kind of design,” William said. “It made us realize how little we know about the human body. You can’t recreate human anatomy in two semesters.”

“While it involves a lot of things we didn’t have schooling for, at no point did someone throw their hands in the air,” added Brett. “It was, OK, where do we start?”

Peter began borrowing textbooks of friends who were exercise physiology majors. Other team members spent hours and hours researching on Google, while Douglas watched countless YouTube videos to model movement of typical prosthetics.

The team spent the fall on design work and spring on construction and testing.

Some parts took more than 14 hours to print on a 3-D printer, and required constant attention to prevent misprints. The palm had to be printed six times until it was just right. Douglas tried to match the finger size to his own hand and fitted each digit with brightly colored silicone grips to add friction.

For Brett, the most powerful moment took place when they tried to get Tito to move his mechanical fingers for the first time—asking him to work muscles to move fingers he had been without for more than a decade.

“In hooking up the sensors, I said, ‘I know you have never used these in your life, but close your eyes and just try,’” he said.

When the plastic digit first twitched, Brett recalled, “it was out of this world.”

“It was pretty cool,” Tito added. “I moved my arm muscles and I could move the fingers individually, the way I wanted them to,” he said. “I couldn’t feel the fingers themselves but I could feel them moving, and that was cool.”

Using a complex algorithm Brett designed, the coding dictates how the fingers should move. Tito has access to the algorithms to change them as necessary. A devoted student, he absorbs the device’s details with rapt attention.

“He picks it up in minutes, if not seconds,” Brett said.

Tito was excited, both for the hand and the opportunity to interact with budding engineers.

“When the guys came over, I wouldn’t stop talking because I just had so many questions. ‘What does that do?’ ‘What is a transistor?’ What is a resistor?’” he said with a laugh. “I had to learn to pipe down because the guys had to work. They weren’t there to teach me, but they taught me a lot, a lot that I couldn’t have learned by myself.”

And unlike his high school teachers, they gave him their undivided attention.

“We had a lot of laughs. I think we fit a whole year’s worth of laughing into a few weeks,” Tito said.

With the movements working, the team continued to make improvements.

The first test was for strength to see if he could lift five pounds. Next, was for dexterity, to demonstrate that he could pick up a piece of paper—or at least slide it off a table and pinch it. Then, they tried to see if Tito could pick up a ball and drop it, over and over. With enough revisions, every goal was achieved.

“It’s not quite wear-it-around-the-house-every-day, but it’s a proven concept,” Brett said.

The first mechanical hand has proven to be more practical. His favorite use is playing catch at the park.

“My friends always ask me, ‘Did you do that or did you buy that?’” he said. “I say, ‘No, some of my friends did it for me.’”

Fostering Friendship

More important than the success of the hand itself, the students said the real reward was how Tito responded.

“That last night of testing, he was lying to us. We kept checking on him, ‘Is it hot?’ He’d say no, but yes, it was. ‘Is it heavy?’ ‘No.’ But, yes, it was. He wanted to keep the hand on because he was having fun,” Brett said. “It confirmed it was doing its job.”

They were also inspired by his family, who greeted even the most minor progress with awe and encouragement, welcoming them into their home for repeated testing and revisions, cooking meals for the students, and reveling together in every single success.

“It’s very brave of them to trust a bunch of college students with their son,” said William, who also acted as translator, because Tito’s parents primarily speak Spanish.

“Everywhere we went we had a huge amount of support,” Brett said. “A project like this attracts the best kinds of people.”

Vendors gave them discounts on parts, expedited shipping, and even offered team members jobs after graduation.

In November 2015, Tito’s Left Hand won first place at the Business Concepts Elevator Pitch through the Chico State College of Business, as judges recognized the entrepreneurial potential of their affordable, effective prosthesis.

Over the years, faculty advisor Ramesh Varahamurti’s students have completed a golf-ball dispensing machine, a drone to map chlorophyll levels in farmland, and various deep-space projects for NASA, but Tito’s Left Hand surpasses them all.

“That, to me, is the ultimate in high-tech,” the professor said. “And everything they did was done from scratch. They have learned how to learn, so now they can do anything.”

He showed videos of the students working with Tito to his junior-level classes.

“I would watch the expression on their faces,” Varahamurti said. “Every section that saw it said, ‘That’s how engineering should be.’ How much more real value can you add?”

Varahamurti is now working to add an option in biomedical engineering within the mechatronic degree. A multidisciplinary course, it would have elements from kinesiology, nursing, computer science, and engineering—exactly the same courses of study Tito’s Left Hand needed to complete the project.

Douglas Smith uses the team’s stockpile of tools and parts to improve the prosthesis.

Douglas Smith uses the team’s stockpile of tools and parts to improve the prosthesis.

Sky is the Limit

After graduating in May, the four team members agreed that despite all their academic and engineering successes, the highlight of their college careers was the relationship that evolved with Tito, and their desire for him to follow their lead and pursue his dreams. “The sky is the limit,” Brett said. “Being able to share that with someone young is hugely empowering.”

Tito’s aptitude never fails to awe them, as the teen regularly asks the team members questions well beyond the realm of their college engineering expertise.

“We are having to dig deeper for the answers but it’s making us do a bit of review,” Douglas said. “When we are with Tito, it shifts from work mode to teach mode. I feel like I have to study up before each time we meet with him.”

Peter recalled the first night of muscle readings, when Tito went through the parts piece by piece to learn what they were and how they operated—both individually and in the prosthetic’s grand scheme.

“He was incredibly hands-on in the whole project, wanting to know what we were measuring, what it meant,” Peter said.

By the time they returned for their next visit, Tito had gone online and bought a soldering iron, wires, and other equipment to build devices of his own. He started an engineering notebook, where he takes notes and drafts his own ideas.

After the semester ended, the team was still huddling together at William’s house, planning projects for Tito and working to further improve the prosthesis.

“We want to be able to foster this curiosity,” Peter said. “At this rate, he could become the best engineering student Chico State has ever seen.”

A sophomore in high school, Tito has another year left before he will start applying for colleges. Chico State tops his list, and he aspires to major in one of the engineering options.

“I want to build my life around that,” he said. “I know there is a lot of success in that field right now, and there are models for experimental hands. I would like to be part of that, in helping to make it more successful.”

He hopes to find scholarships to fund his education, and the team is hopeful, too.

“It would mean the world to us, for him to focus on just his passion, to enjoy it,” Brett said.

They want him to have a future at their alma mater, with its welcoming environment, faculty support, and commitment to hands-on learning.

“You spend five minutes with Tito and know he’s going to be an amazing engineer,” Douglas said. “That’s who I want representing Chico State.”

Ashley Gebb (BA, Journalism, ’08) is the publications editor at Chico State.