The toddler mobility device allows children with physical disabilities to explore their world and experience the world around them that previously seemed out of reach.
Right now, across the globe, employers are being bombarded with thousands of resumes from potential employees graduating from college in the next few weeks, each thinking their work and experience will put them over the top.
A group of mechanical engineering students at Texas Tech University, however, can put an accomplishment on their slate that truly is something unique and special. Their feat - giving a little girl the gift of mobility.
The students are part of the senior design class in the Department of Mechanical Engineering. Each year the class, which is divided into two semesters, Design I and Design II, have to design, manufacture and produce a product. Most times, the product is something for use in the petroleum industry but has also included products created for companies like Lockheed-Martin.
This year, however, the class produced a product that is fairly rare, but at the same time, much needed in terms of giving toddlers with disabilities the freedom to move at will and develop through cognitive spatial awareness. The idea came from physical therapist Pamela Baker at Pediatric Therapy, Inc. in Lubbock, who contacted mechanical engineering instructor Jeff Hanson about producing the device as a class project.
The result was a motorized mobility device that allows a child with disability the same freedom of movement as others her age without disabilities.
"It kind of hit us by surprise," said senior design student Sebastian Bahamonde. "We chose the project because it seemed like it would be fun, like making a go-kart, at the beginning. We got a video from Pam of this child. She's a happy little child and that was great, but she was rolling around however she could to get around. We all just went silent.
"We are changing someone's life and this is no longer a go-kart. And if we can do this well enough, we can change hundreds of lives. That was the biggest thing for us."
The girl, Ava Rosales, received the finished product on Wednesday, and the result was overwhelming joy all the way around as Ava begins exploring her new world, previously unattainable until now.
"The students who worked on this project, in 20 years will remember what they built, and seeing that little girl, will remember it like it was yesterday," Hanson said. "The kinds of things that stick in your mind and the things that I still remember about engineering school are the hands-on projects."
Studies show children with physical disabilities that limit their mobility struggle to develop an understanding of their surroundings and how far away items actually are. This is called cognitive spatial awareness and is something that those without physical limitations tend to take for granted, especially growing up.
"Basically they're not getting to see the concept of gravity, they're not developing depth perception and they're not developing hand-eye coordination," said Eddie Erlbacher, a senior design student who was part of the team. "We take for granted that we're crawling around, picking things up, dropping things. Some kids don't get that because they don't have the ability to move around."
That's where the idea of the toddler mobility device comes into play. Designed to be used by children ages 1-5 or before they hit their first big growth spurt, it is a frame containing electronic parts that control two independent motors that operate the back wheels. The front wheels are caster wheels, and the combination allows the device to possess a zero-turn ratio. It's part zero-turn lawn mower, part Roomba.
"It can be adjusted however it needs to be," Bahamonde said. "Also, the parent can pick the device up and put it in the back of the car and take the kid to class, and then when they get to school the parent can take it out and the kid can keep going."
The motor and electronic components are covered by a hard shell with a padded seat and back support, plus a seat belt to prevent the child operating the device from being accidentally thrown off of it, though it goes slow enough that falling off is not a major problem.
It sounds like a simple device, but getting to a final product was anything but easy.
The first semester of design involved talking with Baker to figure out the problem and the best way to attack it. The rest of the semester was spent planning, doing Computer Aided Design drawings and 3-D drawings to get an idea of what the product looked like.
"We wanted the chair to be as big as possible but still fit through a door," Erlbacher said. "The reason it is so wide in the middle of the chair itself is because sometimes kids sit cross-legged, sometimes they sit straight, and we wanted it to be adaptable to any kid."
The second semester of design involved the actual manufacturing and troubleshooting of the device and making sure the controls were safe. That involved a lot of work, questioning and, in some cases, starting over. One minor change could alter the balance of the device, which made the process tedious.
It also entailed some aspects engineers don't always think of. Other methods of manufacturing had to be used with the mechanical engineering's machine shop out of order. The shell was produced with the 3-D printer, but it came out deformed and had to be fixed by using Bondo, a heating gun and two days of sanding.
Students also had to purchase padding and fabric from a local store and then fabricating them into the padded seat on the device.
This encompassed basically the whole month of November and part of December.
"We had to overcome what I like to call the 'You're Wrong' phenomenon," Bahamonde said. "It was hard to get anything going at first because it was always like, 'you have to do the seat belt like this' and someone else was like, 'no, you're wrong.' So if you are constantly saying you're wrong to each other you're not going to get anything done. We eventually figured out what each individual person could do best, and little by little, it transformed into what we all decided."
Erlbacher added that working in a group was also a challenge in itself.
"Most of our projects have been sort of on our own," Erlbacher said. "But when you're bringing several participants into it, it's a lot different. Everybody's trying to get things done, trying to do it simultaneously, so it takes a lot of coordination. It was definitely a learning experience."
Ava Rosales spins around the floor at Pediatric Therapy, Inc. on a device that, quite honestly, would make her the envy of kids everywhere. She gets to zoom around on this light blue device that looks like something that jumped straight from the film "Back to the Future."
It's as much a cool toy as it is a functional mobility device.
"We wanted it to look like a little car, almost," Erlbacher said. "That was the most fun for us; we got to imagine what we would want as children. I remember driving a toy jeep when I was a kid and I thought I was a race car driver. We wanted that for her, to get into this, not have that disability and think about being a race car driver or something. We wanted it to be fun as well as practical."
The hope, also, is this isn't just a one-time device. The students have applied for a patent for the product and feel it could be easily reproduced on a large scale and at a cost that would make it affordable without the need of Medicare, Medicaid or help from insurance companies.
"I'd love it if we never sold one of these because that means there are no more handicapped kids, but unfortunately, that's not the case," Hanson said. "Now she can drive right into the room and go see mom, and this gives her the freedom that we all take for granted. I can see this thing going big and lasting. There's a need for this product that is not out there right now."
In addition to the tremendous sense of satisfaction from a completed project and giving a little girl the gift of mobility, it also provides a sense of achievement for those involved in the production as well as a leg up as they head out into the real world.
"It has really helped my confidence," said Erlbacher, who like Bahamonde will be graduating this week. "To go through engineering school, it is a lot of math and calculations. But really seeing something go from the beginning stages of just an idea to a full-on product, it really is satisfying and a boost to my confidence that I can actually be an engineer. This has affirmed that this is exactly what I want to do and go into design after college. Now I have the confidence that I can be productive and innovative."
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