Providing Hope: EMPOWER Club Gives Students Hands-on Experience While Helping Real People with Challenges

Pearse Lipscomb realized the impact he could have at Cal Poly when a Cuesta College student strummed a guitar for the first time using a prosthetic hand Lipscomb helped create. 

“He was a little bit emotional,” Lipscomb said. “All of us were. It was a beautiful thing.”

Three years later, Lipscomb is president of the club that made that moment possible. Now named EMPOWER (Endeavors to Move People Onward with Engineered Results), the club’s 4-person leadership team includes three biomedical engineering students. 

Operating out of the TECHE lab, the student-run club aims to improve quality of life for individuals with physical challenges.  At the same time, members gain hands-on experience designing and manufacturing devices real people will use.

“Going into biomedical engineering, this was something that seemed super hands-on to me,” said Ally McCabe, BMED major and senior vice-president of EMPOWER. “It showed why we’re in biomedical engineering.”

The club recently renamed and rebranded itself. And, after the COVID-19 pandemic paused in-person activities for more than a year, it is actively helping others on multiple projects, including:

  • Exercise equipment for Achievement House.  This team will help Achievement House, a nonprofit that encourages and supports individuals with disabilities, by designing a piece of outdoor exercise equipment accessible for those with physical challenges.
  • Hand and Arm for Beth. Multiple teams are working to assist a local woman who lost both legs, her right arm and her three left fingers due to sepsis.
  • Braces for Bill. This team plans to make hiking easier for a University of Virginia School of Medicine professor who injured his leg during a 100-mile bike ride.
  • Lift for Alex. In this project, students are assisting a Cal Poly aerospace engineering student, who was paralyzed when he fell from a Big Sur cliff. Their lift will help Alex Fung transfer from his wheelchair to hotel beds.
  • Leg for Karen. A prosthetic leg designed for rougher terrain will help a tri-athlete hike.
  • Exoskeleton project. Students have been working to assist a local man with quadriplegic cerebral palsy by designing and creating an exoskeleton that would allow for lower-limb mobility.

The broad education BMEDs get makes them ideal for a club like EMPOWER, Lipscomb said. “But that doesn’t mean any other major can’t have a great impact on these projects.”

The interdisciplinary nature of the projects helps both BMEDs and other majors garner knowledge outside of their chosen field.

“It has taught me how to communicate across disciplines,” said Laura McGann, a computer science major, who heads the exoskeleton project.

The club also provides a sense of community and helps students narrow down career paths.

“I think this has made me realize that I’m not as passionate about actually building and designing devices as I am more connecting with others, communicating with others and seeing that final delivery of the device and how impactful it is that we can improve these wonder people’s quality of life,” said Ana Conrado, a BMED major and vice-president of operations with EMPOWER.

Because of her EMPOWER experiences, Conrado said, she would like to represent products for a medical device company, working with physicians and patients directly in clinical settings. 

“This has taught me that I really want to be on the front line,” she said.

Each member of the leadership team has fond memories of the challengers they helped. For Lipscomb, that was the moment Tim Fountain grabbed a guitar. 

The club had built a prosthetic to accommodate Fountain’s plans to become a nurse.

Along the way, Fountain said he was also into music, but he couldn’t play guitar because he didn’t have a hand for strumming. So the team made sure the prosthetic could also hold a guitar pick. The moment Fountain first strummed a guitar is one of Lipscomb’s most memorable EMPOWER memories.

“It’s really neat to see someone start to get hopeful and then see themselves get something that was lost or learn something new or have the capability to do something they had never done before,” Lipscomb said.


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