Dec. 12, 2012
COPY BY: Rana McDonald, 806-651-2129, firstname.lastname@example.org
Engineering Students Collaborate on Noise Reduction Project for NICU
CANYON, Texas—Shhh—engineering students at West Texas A&M University are using their technical curriculum of science, math and physics to help create a safe and quiet sleeping environment for premature infants in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) at Northwest Texas Hospital.
Students enrolled in a WTAMU mechanical engineering design class got the opportunity to add this human element to their studies through an interesting collaboration with the University’s nursing program and Northwest Texas Hospital. Students in the spring 2012 course started the project, and the fall 2012 class put the finishing touches on the NICU project that involves refurbishment of existing equipment with cost-saving measures for the hospital.
Dr. Heidi Taylor, associate professor of nursing, was speaking to first-year nurses in a residency program at Northwest, when Lindsey Mosley, one of the nurses, shared problems they face with noise in NICU.
“Research has shown that an increase in noise can adversely affect the neurological and sensory development of the premature infant,” Mosley said. “While hearing begins in utero, the fetus is exposed to noise that is muffled by the liquid environment of the mother’s womb. After birth, the premature infant is exposed to sound that travels through air, which is more harsh and unnatural. We make every effort to maintain the noise level to a minimum, but certain things are beyond our control.”
High decibel noises can cause intracranial hemorrhage in neonates, and nurses have long taken a leadership role in solving the problem through research and redesigned care models. Many of the noise problems Mosley shared with Taylor focused on mechanical aspects in the NICU such as noisy latches on the Isolettes. The nursing and engineering programs at WTAMU have worked together on crossover projects before so Taylor met with Dr. Emily Hunt, interim director of the School of Engineering and Computer Science, and a student project on noise in the NICU was born.
WTAMU engineering students spent some time in the NICU, visited with the staff and took cues on what was needed for noise mitigation. The initial project focused on sound control but after the nurses pointed out other problems and offered possible solutions, the students expanded the project to include other variables as well. In addition to improving the Isolette’s noisy latch system, the students also are developing improvements related to thermal control and transportation based on the nursing staff’s suggestions.
“The students loved this project,” Hunt said. “It provided a real design experience for them, but it also had special meaning to them, too. They saw these tiny babies and realized it’s about people and not just about numbers.”
The engineering students found the latches on the Isolettes to be extremely loud and came up with a solution that involves replacement of the noisy metal latch system as well as lining the seals of the Isolette portholes with a combination of impact-sound foils and foams. The students also are working on an automated system to open and close the Isolette for convenience when the nurse’s hands are full and eliminating the possibility of a loud bang when the door is shut.
The students discovered other opportunities for controlling the sound in the Isolette through a thermal/sound quilt. The washable quilt, made from sound dampening and insulation foams and foils, is designed to fit over the Isolette pod to help control sounds in the NICU. In addition to the quilt, the students also are designing a thermal dome apparatus to help control the temperature in and around the Isolette pod. The dome would hang from the ceiling and surround the Isolette to provide warmth while providing another means of blocking out NICU noise.
The wheels on the Isolettes provided a bumpy means of transportation so the engineering students are modifying the wheel system for a smoother ride and adding a gel insulated layer beneath the infant’s sleeping area to absorb vibrations. The smoother wheel action combined with the insulated layer will reduce jarring impacts for sleeping babies.
“My first assignment in the fundamentals of engineering course with Dr. Hunt was to work with the class to come up with a definition for engineering,” William Walker, a former engineering student who worked on the first phase of the project and now is with NASA Johnson Space Center. “Our class said that engineering is using science, math and physics to help people. That’s exactly what this project allowed me to do. Dr. Hunt inspired us all to use engineering to do no less than to help others.”
The student’s mechanical retrofit of the Isolette will provide a kit to refurbish existing equipment to control noise in the NICU while saving the hospital money. The project provided a perfect example of the crossover between engineering and the medical field and gave WTAMU students the best in mechanical design experience.