Professor’s Mini Circuit Board Has Maximum Impact for George Brown College Curriculum

Lisa E. Boyes

If asked “what can fit on the head of a pin,” Professor Jamie McIntyre of the Centre for Advanced Engineering Technologies would know more than most. The same, as it turns out, could be said of a pen. Recently Bloorview Kids Rehab scientist Dr. Tom Chau, with one of his post-doctoral students, David Fernandez, essentially asked McIntyre the question: “How small can you make the features of a circuit board so that they can fit on the head of a pen?”

“The answer so far,” says McIntyre, a licensed engineer, “is five thousandths of one inch.” The result, for George Brown College, has been an overhaul of its microprocessor curriculum in the Mechanical Engineering and Electro-Mechanical Technology programs.

In a mutually beneficial partnership between McIntyre in the college’s microelectronics laboratory, Bloorview and several industrial-design partners, McIntyre provided an early circuit-board prototype for Bloorview’s handwriting data analysis unit, which is still under development. The electronic pen will ultimately be used as a diagnostic device for children with severe physical challenges, such as cerebral palsy and muscular dystrophy, and for those with more common conditions, such as developmental coordination disorder (dcd). Once the optimum design is confirmed and commercialized, occupational therapists and clinicians will be able to use the pen to assess grip strength, grip position and control, paper pressure and speed of printing.

McIntyre’s contribution involved miniaturizing his circuit board to less than one-and-a-half by one inch (the size of a postage stamp), to fit the tip of the pen so as not to interfere with grasping the pen along the shaft. McIntyre, using top-of-the-line, specialized equipment that Siemens Canada has provided to the microelectronics lab, designed the radically small circuit board, constructed it and got it working.

“Jamie’s work,” says Chau, “also enabled us to eliminate a second computer connection to the pen. The wiring itself is cumbersome and can be very distracting to children for whom printing and writing are real challenges.”

A second challenge for Jamie was interfacing the circuit to accommodate a flexible sensory array that was purchased from another vendor. To overcome this incompatibility, McIntyre collaborated with the Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre and used one of their labs, another of McIntyre’s mutually beneficial partnerships. Fernandez at Bloorview then fed the circuit board into his software and computer configuration.

Chau, who also directs the University of Toronto’s clinical engineering program, adds, “We would be very interested in working with Jamie again, now that we have a Wireless prototype of the handwriting data analysis unit.”

The circuit board project is one of a series of research and education exchanges between George Brown College and Bloorview Kids Rehab. The college’s microelectronics students have also worked with U of T undergraduate engineering students, guided by McIntyre and Chau, respectively, to develop and assemble circuitry and design an aspirometer, which indicates if a person is experiencing swallowing difficulties. Chau and his team are now actively working towards commercialization. In another association, a George Brown mechanical engineering student was invited to work and study in Chau’s lab at Bloorview in summer, 2007.

“We’re successful in projects as diverse as these,” says McIntyre, “because we never say no to a design challenge. We can also, as a result, educate and involve our students in relevant, applied research. The fact that our microelectronics lab is comparable to industrial microelectronics labs in quality, and virtually unique among public institutional engineering labs, ensures that the Siemens technology is well used on novel design research.”

George Brown College, with 30,000 full- and part-time students and more than 900 faculty in more than 150 programs, aims to be a top community college of choice for applied research investment by industry and other partners. Its applied research strengths include advanced engineering and microelectronics; nursing and the social sciences; health informatics; IT; and design and new media. George Brown is currently allied with nine other Ontario colleges in the Colleges Ontario Network for Industry Innovation, started with a $3.5m grant from the Ministry of Research and Innovation. CONII is building college capacity to bring research to the marketplace.

Bloorview Kids Rehab is Canada’s largest children’s rehabilitation teaching hospital, serving more than 7,500 children and youth annually as outpatients and inpatients. Bloorview’s Research Institute improves the lives of children with disabilities and special needs through assistive technology R&D; clinical, quality-of-life and outcomes research; and research into incidence, risk factors, prevention, and the socio-cultural, political and attitudinal factors affecting the young with disabilities and special needs.