Western Carolina University’s new Summer Undergraduate Research Program brought faculty members together with current and future students for eight-week research projects, including one on prosthetics that could benefit medical science and help people with artificial limbs.

The project, “Correlation of Myoelectric Signals and Hand Gestures,” analyzed electrical signals produced in the arm when a person uses different hand gestures. The research team was looking for a correlation that could be used to improve commercially-available myoelectric prosthetics.

Kyle Johnson, a junior from Lenoir majoring in electrical engineering, undertook the project along with Scott Pierce, assistant professor of engineering. For two of the eight weeks, each of the nine teams of current students and faculty members were joined by Research Scholars, new freshman students who will be enrolling in WCU’s Honors College this fall semester. Hannah Grace LeMacks, a resident of Fletcher and graduate of West Henderson High School, worked with Johnson and Pierce.

The research could help create a more affordable, versatile hand prosthetic that can be attached without painful surgery. “Throughout the past two months, we’ve had our fair share of successes and drawbacks, but we managed to produce some usable datasets in the end,” Johnson said. “Analysis of the data will continue and there are discoveries yet to be made.”

Pierce elaborated that the goal is to improve upon currently available prosthetics, as to the degree of control of motion, tightness of grip and, particularly, for making gestures. “Say a soldier in Afghanistan loses a hand in combat, he or she can get the best hand prosthetic money can buy and it certainly looks like a hand, but there are limits to what the mind can ‘train’ it to do. As a starting point, we want to take what you can buy now and make it one step better,” he said.

Myoelectrodes – sensors that detect electrical signals from the surface of the skin generated by muscle contractions – were connected to Johnson. Reading from an oscilloscope, gestures and movements from his muscles as they contracted and relaxed were measured and subject to evaluation, with the team recording the data. Pierce gave an example of the amount of force exerted to pick up a Styrofoam cup. Too little and it slips away; too much and the cup is crushed.

Johnson said the required sensitivity of equipment and the preciseness needed for testing hit some stumbling blocks early into the project, which led to frustrations for the team until the proper technology and settings were installed.

The summer program is a university-wide initiative that encompasses all undergraduate majors. In the context of the program, the word “research” applies to scholarly and creative activities throughout the university, ranging from history and biology to English, engineering and geology. Designed to emphasize the cross-disciplinary effects of bringing faculty and student scholars together from a wide range of disciplines, the program benefits academically-gifted students through the one-on-one guidance of a faculty mentor and immersive study. All the participants receive stipends for their research work, and academic credit is available to the students.

Discussions about instituting a summer research program on the WCU campus began last fall when Jill Granger, dean of the Honors College, took the idea to WCU Provost Alison Morrison-Shetlar. Funding was secured through the office of WCU Chancellor David O. Belcher. Bill Kwochka, associate professor and associate head of WCU’s Department of Chemistry and Physics, was named as director.

All current students, including Johnson, presented their findings to a campus audience at a symposium Friday, July 15.

For more information about the program, contact Kwochka at 828-227-3673 or visit the WCU webpage at http://www.wcu.edu/learn/academic-enrichment/the-honors-college/ugres/Summer-Undergraduate-Research-Program.asp.