South Elgin HS students' prosthetic design wins competition - and interest of industry

Jonathan Kuruc, 18, of Bartlett plays hockey.

Justin Markel, 18, of South Elgin plays baseball.

Beny Romo, 17, of South Elgin runs track and cross country.

So all three students, who graduated last month from South Elgin High School, knew the demands those sports made of an able body, the way the knee needed to flex or the ankle to turn.

That meant they also had a good idea how a prosthetic leg would need to look and move. And in their engineering courses at South Elgin, they had the tools needed to create that limb.

“We wanted to do something that was virtually unique, applicable in multiple situations and multiple scenarios to better someone’s lifestyle,” Markel said.

The students’ design took first place in April in the New Generation Innovators Challenge at the Midwest Research Competition: POSITIVE IMPACT at Wheeling High School.

The challenge — sponsored by HP, Intel and Autodesk — challenged students in grades nine through 12 to investigate and design solutions to real-world engineering problems presented by industry partners through the use of provided supercomputing capabilities, according to the Wheeling High School website. This year’s challenges included improving the airflow in a hospital operating room, the design of a prosthetic leg, and the design of protective headgear.

Interest piqued

The prosthetic leg piqued their interest because all three are interested in biomedical engineering, Markel said.

And, Kuruc said candidly, “We had no idea how to do the helmet.”

They got a lot of help from their teacher at South Elgin High School, Russ Bartz, they said, as well as from area businesses. They looked up patents for prosthetic limbs, not wanting to infringe on anything already out there, Romo said. They also looked up phone numbers and started making calls, he said.

Most businesses they shared their plans with seemed impressed, Markel added. Others gave them a figurative “slap on the head” when an idea or plan wouldn’t work, he said.

“Part of it was coming up with something new. One of the questions in the competition was, ‘How will your product have a positive impact on society?’ So that always was going through the back of our heads,” Markel said.

That’s what led them to design a prosthetic leg that could be used in multiple sports — different from the designs they had seen, all created specifically with one sport in mind, they said.

And that’s the design that won the Next Generation Innovators Challenge, earning each student $1,100 of prizes from HP, Intel and Autodesk, they said. It also as won them the attention of the industry, they said.

The challenge had been integrated into Engineering Design and Development, the capstone course in South Elgin High School’s engineering program, part of Project Lead The Way, Markel said.

Project Lead The Way is a nonprofit that provides science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education programs to middle and high schools across the United States, according to the PLTW website. STEM has been a major push in the U.S. education system since President Barack Obama announced his Educate to Innovate initiative in 2009.

Next steps

More than 4,200 middle and high schools in all 50 states and Washington, D.C., offered PLTW courses to their students in the 2011-12 school year. And the Elgin School District U46 Board of Education voted to expand the district’s PLTW course offerings for the coming 2013-14 school year.

Kuruc said he enrolled in the engineering courses at South Elgin High School because he always has liked “hands-on work,” building things when he was a kid “with LEGOs, those wooden Lincoln Logs.” Romo always liked math and science, he said.

And biomedical engineering seemed like a good industry for “helping people,” Markel said.

Their success at the Next Generation Innovators Challenge “solidified” their interests, he said.

Markel and Romo plan to study biomedical engineering in the fall — Markel at Purdue University and Romo at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Kuruc also plans to study engineering at Illinois State University.

All three now are in the process of incorporating as a business to create and market their design, something they “always thought about pursuing,” Markel said.

Intel had approached them after the competition and now is helping them with the incorporation and getting their design out there, they said. First up, they want to develop a prototype of their design to take to manufacturers.

“I think a lot of professionals have that ‘what is possible’ mindset,” Markel said. “We had no idea what we were getting into. We had everything wide open to us.”