Research Team Profile: Wheels

At the September 27 Science Seminar, the Letourneau Wheels team reported on their research to an audience of students and faculty in Barry Auditorium. Karen Rispin, Assistant Professor in the Department of Biology, directs this small group of seven students, which consists of Stormie Goodwin, Kristen Huff, Nicole Leman, Nathan Lowe, Anna McDonnel, Vanessa Parra, and Josh VanLeer. These sophomores, juniors, and seniors all all commit to doing research twice a week and taking trip to Kenya each year. While students take this class for credits toward their various majors, they also get the chance to help disabled kids and adults all over the world. The mission of Wheels is simple: help people in low-resource countries get around.

Wheels team member Kristen Huff speaks with Grace Kavinya.

Wheels collaborates with international companies to test wheelchairs in order to provide accurate results about the chairs and test subjects who use them. Whirlwind Wheelchairs International, a group based in San Francisco, and Motivation, a UK-based organization, both provide the wheelchairs on which the team works. These two sponsors look to the Wheels project to test their wheelchairs, making sure they are suitable for mass-production and distribution. The team gathers data about the functionality of the wheelchair parts and the comfort level and heart rate of the subjects are using the wheelchairs.

The Wheels team is currently divided into two groups: those who actively test the chairs and conduct data runs, and the other members who are finishing their reports from the last trip to Kenya. Both groups contribute to the research they provide to the wheelchair companies. Dr. Rispin helps to coordinate the papers that Wheels publishes, which in turn has a wide-reaching impact. Companies that Letourneau has no connection with email Dr. Rispin about the work her team takes part in, confirming the valuable research our Letourneau students are doing.


Pop-a-wheelies are one way to test the stability and balance of the wheelchair designs. During the science seminar, the team explained the exercises used to gather data here on campus.

Karen Rispin specifies her goals in the Kenya 2012 YouTube video: “The goal of The Wheels Project is to make a difference to children using wheelchairs in poor countries, or less-resourced settings.” Perhaps the most exciting part of being on the Letourneau Wheels team is the annual trip to Joytown Primary Xchool in Thika, Kenya. This past year, several Letourneau students got to go to Africa for a few weeks to test wheelchairs with the children that actually would be using them. This trip happens every year, with more and more enthusiastic Letourneau students getting the chance to see their research at work.  They worked on their Functional-Mobility-Assessment to help get feedback from wheelchair users.

Vanessa Parra and one of the lovely children from the Joytown Primary School. The relationships made during the team's stay in Kenya made the trip an incredible life experience as well as a productive research trip.

Letourneau also has opportunities to work with disabled people in the surrounding community of Longview. In practicing with locals and developing chairs to fit their needs, the Wheels team has furthered their research by leaps and bounds. The team is currently working on a gait-function questionnaire that helps get the most helpful input from users of wheelchairs.

Wheels will have another opportunity to show the public their research at the annual Texas chapter of the American College of Sports Medicine conference in February. Josh VanLeer spoke of the conference during the team’s Science Seminar presentation, saying, “It gives [us] a chance to present the research we’ve been doing, and it also gives us the chance to get more exposure to the Wheels research, not just to those people in Texas, but people from all over who come to this conference. We’re also able to see other research that’s being done, and we get to learn from experts in the sports medicine field.” The TACSM conference provides support for the Wheels members and helps them look to the future of wheelchair research.

The Letourneau Wheels team is involved in valuable and life-changing work, for disabled kids in Africa and around the world. For more information about the Wheels project, visit their website and like their Facebook page, the Letourneau University Wheels Project. The team presentation can be found here in the LeTourneau Science Seminar archive. We look forward to seeing how they continue to serve God with their hard work and unique research!

Written by Ben McDonnel. Photos provided by Wheels team members.

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