Students step up for physically challenged children

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Rice University freshmen’s horizontal ladder helps kids learn to navigate obstacles 

HOUSTON – (May 1, 2014) – Five Rice University freshmen stepped up to a challenge – literally — when they designed a device for physical therapists who help children with balance issues.

The StepUp Floor Ladder is a simple frame with movable rungs that tests children’s ability to balance as they traverse obstacles.

But the process of creating the device was not simple at all. The young women who accepted the task posed by the Pediatric Therapy Center (PTC) in Houston spent every spare moment of their first year at Rice strategizing, designing and constructing the prototype.

“In our first semester, we discovered our project had so many different components we didn’t expect,” said Fanny Huang, a bioengineering student. “Toward the end, we filtered out many of the ideas, but the design was constantly changing.”

The ladder was the product of a course offered by Rice’s George R. Brown School of Engineering that challenges students to immerse themselves in the design process from day one of their college careers.

The multidisciplinary team known as FEMGI-120 (a play on the course catalog designation, Engi-120) came together with a goal: to make something that would serve their clients for years to come. Huang’s teammates are Lauren Wood (a computer science major), Nicole Moes (mechanical engineering), Denise Yee (architecture) and Lauren McCarley (civil and environmental engineering). Their advisers are Matthew Wettergreen, a lecturer at Rice’s Oshman Engineering Design Kitchen, and Ann Saterbak, a professor in the practice of bioengineering education.

Wood said the students finished a wooden version of their ladder in the fall, “but it didn’t quite meet all of our expectations, and we didn’t feel comfortable handing that to the therapy center. We wanted to make something that was a lot better. And I think we’re all really proud of what we’ve made now.”

The 17-pound final version is a frame of strong plastic tubes covered in outdoor tablecloth material and padding. The cover “serves as a visual barrier for the children so they know where they can and can’t step, and don’t just see the PVC frame,” she said.

The ladder replaces a slotted wooden frame the center had been using for years. “The old frame is not adjustable horizontally or vertically, and it’s started to fall apart,” Moes said. The old device was heavy and when it was lifted from the side, all the slats would fall out, she said.

“What was most important to the therapists was that the ladder remain stable during a session,” McCarley said. The students designed vertical foam dividers that stay in place with PVC clamps until the therapist decides to move them. The therapist can also change heights with pieces that slide into the divider frames.

They wanted to be able to set it up with the same spacing their current ladder has, but we also made it vertically adjustable up to the average height of a stair, 7 inches,” Wood said.

The students also designed and delivered colored and textured mats that slip under the frame to give patients a strong visual reference as they navigate the course.

“They’re a diligent, hard-working group of students, and they’ve done a really nice job of communicating with us and problem-solving things we found along the way,” said Marla Lafferty, a staff physical therapist at PTC. Lafferty said the ladder will help therapists who work with patients with cerebral palsy, Down syndrome and other motor-coordination issues.

The payoff came when the team delivered their finished product to the West Houston facility in late April.

The students were delighted to watch as PTC patient Brooke Stevens, 3, navigated the low rungs, then the higher ones, and then the highest ones, with the teammates and Brooke’s therapist modifying the ladder on the fly.

“This just makes it all worth it,” Moes said.


Watch a video about the StepUp Floor Ladder at

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Related Materials:

FEMGI-120 team page:

Oshman Engineering Design Kitchen:

George R. Brown School of Engineering:

Images for download:






Brooke Stevens, a patient at the Pediatric Therapy Center in Houston, tests her balance with the StepUp Floor Ladder invented by Rice University freshmen to help children navigate obstacles as they walk. The students created the device in an engineering design course that puts them to work on practical problems as soon as their college careers begin. (Credit: Jeff Fitlow/Rice University)


Rice University students watch as pediatric therapist Jane Knowlton helps Brooke Stevens progress through the StepUp Floor Ladder. The Rice freshmen created the device to help patients with balance issues navigate uneven terrain. (Credit: Jeff Fitlow/Rice University)



Rice University freshmen created the StepUp Floor Ladder to help patients at Houston’s Pediatric Therapy Center learn to balance over uneven terrain. Clockwise from front left:  Denise Yee, Nicole Moes, Lauren McCarley, Lauren Wood and Fanny Huang. Credit: Jeff Fitlow/Rice University)


Rice University freshmen created the StepUp Floor Ladder to help patients with motor-coordination issues learn to balance as they traverse uneven terrain. From left: Denise Yee, Nicole Moes, Lauren McCarley, Lauren Wood and Fanny Huang. Credit: Jeff Fitlow/Rice University)

Located on a 300-acre forested campus in Houston, Rice University is consistently ranked among the nation’s top 20 universities by U.S. News & World Report. Rice has highly respected schools of Architecture, Business, Continuing Studies, Engineering, Humanities, Music, Natural Sciences and Social Sciences and is home to the Baker Institute for Public Policy. With 3,920 undergraduates and 2,567 graduate students, Rice’s undergraduate student-to-faculty ratio is 6.3-to-1. Its residential college system builds close-knit communities and lifelong friendships, just one reason why Rice has been ranked No. 1 for best quality of life multiple times by the Princeton Review and No. 2 for “best value” among private universities by Kiplinger’s Personal Finance. To read “What they’re saying about Rice,” go here.

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