Alexander Alvara helps Elena Vazquez into the antigravity jacket that they and Mark Jakovljevic (left) and Juan Lopez designed to assist in physical therapy. They'll present their prototype Saturday at UCI's 23rd annual Undergraduate Research Symposium. Steve Zylius / UCI

They started off wanting to build a real-life Iron Man suit but eventually settled on something more down-to-earth: a robotic jacket that could help athletes recover from shoulder and elbow injuries.

“It makes your arm feel weightless, which reduces pain and improves mobility during rehabilitation exercises,” says Alexander Alvara, a University of California, Irvine senior who co-developed the coat with three other students under the guidance of David Reinkensmeyer, professor of mechanical & aerospace engineering, anatomy & neurobiology and biomedical engineering.

On Saturday, Alvara and fellow mechanical engineering majors Mark Jakovljevic, Elena Vazquez and Juan Lopez unveiled their creation at UCI’s 23rd annual Undergraduate Research Symposium, a daylong event at which hundreds of students present scientific studies, artistic endeavors and inventions.

Think of it as show and tell for the college set.

The catalyst for all this activity is UCI’s innovative Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program, which annually offers nearly $700,000 in grants and fellowships to about 1,500 students working on academic investigations or creative ventures under faculty mentors. Open to all majors, the program aims to give undergraduates a taste of UCI’s research culture by showing them how to write proposals, analyze data and exhibit their results.

This year’s topics ran the gamut, from “The Psychology of Trash” to “Detection of Enamel Demineralization Using Autofluorescence Imaging.” Other projects included a comedy festival, a waterproof orthopedic cast, invisibility stickers that mimic the camouflage abilities of squid, snakebite anti-venom and a look at how learning Italian can help singers.

Alvara and his colleagues – all transfer students from area community colleges – brainstormed their antigravity jacket concept last summer. The goal was to create an affordable and lightweight home alternative to the complex rehab machines used by some physical therapy centers.

Instead of gears and motors, he says, their rubber-infused prototype employs “soft robotics” – belts, straps and thermoplastic components – to redirect weight and pressure away from injured joints.

“We’re not fashion designers,” Alvara concedes, but the final product should resemble a regular jacket.

Make that a regular jacket with a brain. It’s lined with electronic sensors that monitor muscle strain and range of motion during therapy exercises, then forward the information via Bluetooth and a smartphone app to a doctor’s office. The students also wired a batting glove to track the wearer’s lifting ability.

As the patient progresses, the level of weightlessness provided by the jacket can be adjusted, Alvara notes. The coat could also someday lighten the load for workers who do a lot of hoisting, he says.

The next steps for the patent-pending invention include adding a stylish fabric shell that hides the robotics, testing everything in clinical trials, seeking investors and – if all goes well – bringing it to market, Alvara says.

Thanks largely to UROP, which has served as a model nationally and for other UC campuses, “close to 50 percent of all students graduating from UCI in recent years have participated in independent or group research projects,” says UROP director Said Shokair. “The benefits go far beyond the knowledge gained from the projects themselves. The students also develop skills – critical analysis, problem-solving, project management, communication and more – that they will use throughout their lives.”