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By Megan Jonas

In the field of physical therapy, exercise and movement are often the prescriptions for a patient. But as Associate Professor of Physical Therapy David Robbins says, physical therapists have scant scientific data to rely on when making those prescriptions, even for an activity as simple as walking. Although walking can aid in a patient's healing process, it may become a detriment if overdone.

"In rehab, we have little way to know how much patients are walking on their own time and the quality with which they're walking," Robbins says.

For the past academic year, a team of three engineering majors in the senior engineering capstone course has collaborated with Robbins as its client to address this need for data collection. 

"The purpose of my team's project is to create an algorithm that categorizes and quantifies patterns of gait under normal and reduced-load conditions," Ashtyn Petersen '23 says. "It is our goal to provide clinicians with a tool to properly track a patient's progress and recovery outside the clinic."

First offered in 2020, the capstone course is a yearlong class that supports Whitworth's engineering major and is centered on working with outside clients. "The capstone experience is a good way for students to get closer to professional expectations in engineering because there are real clients and real problems to tackle," says Associate Professor of Engineering & Physics Markus Ong. 

The team refined its algorithm by measuring the walking patterns of volunteers who wore accelerometers (tools that measure acceleration) on their waists while either walking normally, limping or using crutches. 

For team member Paul Idiaghe '23, the project aligns well with his career interests and personal value of elevating the human experience. 

"The potential of using signal processing and machine learning techniques to break the current limitations in healthcare was a growing interest of mine even before starting this project," Idiaghe says. "I can see myself being able to contribute to humanity through an engineering career in the biomedical device and biotech industry, or through related graduate or postdoctoral engineering research."