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Engineering capstone team designing an IV device that could help save lives

The images show the OR and the ECE students infrared device to monitor the IV bag pressure.

Working on her engineering capstone project has been different than anything else Cara Sperbeck has done in college.  To succeed, she’s thinking not just about design and function, but the people behind the machine.

Cara is part of a four-student team of seniors at York College of Pennsylvania designing a device that would prevent air bubbles from entering a patient’s arteries during surgery. She’s working alongside classmates Rick Bosse, Jeff Walker, and Chad Wickard with WellSpan’s York Hospital on the device. It’s an engineering capstone project that highlights a shift in focus for the school.

“We’re trying to do more projects that have a community and service focus,” says Dr. Jason Forsyth, a professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering at York College.

Directly helping people

In past years, student projects have included working with a company that provides services to individuals with disabilities, designing an automated bike rental system, and designing a greenhouse for an elementary school.

A growing number of Engineering students want to design products and systems that directly help people, not just create fast cars, Dr. Forsyth says.

That was the case for Cara, who immediately knew the medical capstone was her first choice.

As part of their research, Cara and the medical capstone team observed a surgery and met with doctors and nurses at WellSpan’s York Hospital to discuss their needs.

“You have to find something that not only works in the engineering realm,” Cara says, “but something that works for the nurses and doctors.”

About the project

During some surgical procedures, a pressurized IV is inserted into a patient’s artery. A nurse must constantly monitor the pressure of the IV, change out the IV bag, and make sure no air bubbles get into the line. An air bubble that gets into a patient’s artery could cause brain damage or even death. The job is mundane but incredibly stressful.

The team from York College is designing a new system that would automatically keep the IV pressurized, detect any air bubbles and automatically clamp the line and shut off the system if one were detected, preventing it from getting into a patient’s artery.


The engineering capstone projects at York College are a year-long exercise in problem-solving.

Throughout their senior year, students design and build from scratch. By May, they have a prototype. It’s a physical thing, something that didn’t exist before they created it.

For Dr. Forsyth, watching that process play out is gratifying.

“I think it finally makes it real,” he says. “They’re putting their skills to use.”

They also work with students from other disciplines. Cara is majoring in Computer Engineering, but two of the students on her team are Mechanical Engineers.

“It’s a huge benefit to work on a cross-disciplinary team,” Cara says. “It’s been an experience I wouldn’t have otherwise that I’ll definitely have in the real world.”

‘A cool balance’

Professors Don Hake and Dr. James Moscola work with Cara and her team. There are weekly meetings, and the professors are always available to answer questions, but they give the students space to figure things out on their own.

Earlier this year, Cara and the medical capstone team were debating a problem. Her professor told them to explore both options and see which worked.

You could see he knew which one was best, she says, but he wanted us to decide for themselves.

“It’s been a cool balance of involvement versus letting us do it ourselves,” Cara says.


Dr. Forsyth has been impressed by the students interested in the community-based capstone projects.

“The students are very motivated by their end users,” he says. “They want to make people’s lives better.”

Working on something that could directly impact people’s lives changes how students work.

“You can’t just say, well I can’t get this to work right so I’ll just leave it and get a B,” Cara says. “You have to make it work.”

The potential for this capstone project to positively impact nurses and doctors at York Hospital gives meaning to the work.

“This has the chance to impact a lot of nurses who do these procedures every day,” she says.

In the four years Cara has been at York College, she’s met a lot of people on campus and in the community.

“Now it’s my chance to say 'thank you,'” Cara says, “and give back to them.”