St. Ambrose University student Chris Lorenzen is learning that engineering is much more than just "the nerdy stuff we do.”

Recently, he got a chance to use his skills to help people with physical and developmental disabilities in Ilhéus, Brazil.

One of his clients was Emanuelle, a 15-year-old girl who has cerebral palsy and can communicate only by blinking or grimacing.

Lorenzen and other students in the university’s program for assistive technologies for underprivileged people helped Emanuelle communicate easier with her family by using her ability to blink.

During the spring semester, the students created a custom-made communication box that consists of a pair of sensor glasses that are attached to an electronic board.

The board features rows of cards that contain the letters of the alphabet, a saying or phrase or a want or need. Then, Emanuelle can blink to choose a row and then a particular card.

Once she makes her final selection, an LED light blinks four times.

Lorenzen, a Bettendorf native who wants to become a design engineer, said this is the first time he’s made a device for someone with special needs.

“It was amazing,” he said. “In school, you hone in on your engineering skills. But to turn around and actually get to use it for such a positive outcome is extremely rewarding.”

The project was one of several that students from St. Ambrose developed and took to Brazil during a recent two-week trip.

The program for assistive technologies for the underprivileged was launched two years ago by Jodi Prosise, an assistant professor of engineering.

Students are responsible for gathering information about a client, designing and building the device and showing the client how to use it.

The program runs in conjunction with the university’s occupational therapy department, which sends students to Brazil every other year.

While there, occupational therapy Professor Christine Urish identified patients who could use help from an assistive technology device, Prosise said.

Students also collaborate on projects with engineering students at Sweet Briar College in Virginia.

Prosise said students have completed 19 projects since the class began.

One project students completed locally was adjustable work tables for wheelchair clients who work at the Handicapped Development Center in Davenport.

Prosise said typical clients for engineers are not normally those who are handicapped. Prosise said she wants to provide a different perspective to her future engineers.

“It makes them more well-rounded, I think, and it helps them learn how to communicate better because they have to learn how to communicate with different people than they are used to,” she said.

Lorenzen and Prosise were joined in Brazil by engineering students Clare Huettner and Mitch Schueller, both of Dubuque.

Students from both St. Ambrose and Sweet Briar met with engineering students at the Universidade Estadual de Santa Cruz. Prosise said the college is taking about starting its own assistive technology program that will work in conjunction with the two universities.

Prosise said the communication board, which students have developed over the past two years, is becoming a niche of the program.

Brazil doesn’t have some of the materials needed to build a similar board, so the group is looking at simpler, more sustainable devices using other materials, such as bicycle gears and switches.

Lorenzen said Emanuelle’s family was “really excited” to find a new way to communicate with their daughter.

“I think it brings some hope to them,” Lorenzen said.

Brazilian schools do not have a system in place that supports children who cannot attend a regular school. The St. Ambrose group hopes the communication board will help Emanuelle learn at home, she said.

Other projects the students took to Brazil include a device to help a quadriplegic man get in and out of his wheelchair with ease and a vest that simulates a “bear hug” to help an Autistic boy calm himself.