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Industrial and systems engineering students develop assistive technology for local children

Elisabeth Weems and Colleen Carow | Dec 4, 2017
ISE GoBabyGo
Assistant Professor of Industrial and Systems Engineering Diana Schwerha, instructor for the course, provides some guidance for My'Only's first test drive in her red car in early November.

Industrial and systems engineering students develop assistive technology for local children

Elisabeth Weems and Colleen Carow | Dec 4, 2017
Assistant Professor of Industrial and Systems Engineering Diana Schwerha, instructor for the course, provides some guidance for My'Only's first test drive in her red car in early November.
Assistant Professor of Industrial and Systems Engineering Diana Schwerha, instructor for the course, provides some guidance for My'Only's first test drive in her red car in early November.

Three youngsters at Forest Rose School in Lancaster, Ohio, got the ride of their lives last week when Ohio University engineering students delivered children’s electric cars they had modified for safe play, movement and learning.

Embodying the Russ College of Engineering and Technology’s motto, “Create for Good,” the graduate students partnered with the Fairfield County Board of Developmental Disabilities as part of their industrial ergonomics coursework to produce cost-effective assistive technology tailored to each child’s specific needs. The Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering funded the entire project, including the cars and technology needed for modification.

The project was inspired by the nationwide GoBabyGo effort started at the University of Delaware to fit children with motorized cars as an alternative to wheelchairs. Splitting into three teams, the graduate students modified child-sized red and white sports cars, and a police SUV, for stability, safety and mobility to give the children a viable and fun way to move, learn, and grow.

While final design projects are common practice, Diana Schwerha, associate professor of industrial and systems engineering (ISE) and instructor of the course, said this project was unique for its emphasis on human factors.

“This isn’t really an industrial project,” Schwerha explained, “but we have a user group and user characteristics, we have technology and need to adapt it, and we have a cost component. These cars have been designed with the child in mind so it best matches their ability.”

Schwerha said the project exemplified the boundless potential industrial ergonomics – and engineering in general – have to create for good, and how they can be applied to other fields.

“When we think of human factors, we look at improving the compatibility between people, processes and products for safety and productivity,” Schwerha said. “The children are our clients and we have to create a technology to fit their capabilities, and that means being adaptable because each car will be slightly different depending on what the child needs.”

Tyler Clark, BA ’14, a second-year ISE master’s student who studied psychology as an undergraduate, said psychology is like a softer side of engineering because it complements human cognitive concepts applied in ISE.

“I saw the project as a way to use both the cognitive, human factors side – there’s the aspect of the kids interacting with the car – and also the physical ergonomics of the car itself,” Clark said.

Clark and his teammates modified the police SUV by disconnecting the foot pedal, replacing the steering wheel with a handlebar to accommodate strength and motor skills, and incorporating parts of a child’s car seat to provide stability and safety.

Third-year Ph. D. mechanical engineering student Ohioma Eboreime said the most rewarding part of the project was working directly with the clients to ultimately deliver the cars to very enthusiastic children and parents.

“Watching the kids get very excited every time we came around to test the cars was such a joy to watch,” Eboreime said. “The cars seemed to be all they've always wanted. They were fascinated, distracted and excited all at the same time and never wanted to leave. It was a pleasure to have them run ragged with the cars gleefully.”

Lori Burns, occupational therapist at the Forest Rose School -- which provides children ages 3-22 with free educational services catered to their pace of cognitive development -- and the school’s speech therapist, Megan Rowles, and physical therapist, John Wagner, detailed the children’s physical needs and limitations with OHIO students, also offering suggestions for modifications. Burns said that while assistive technology exists, products aren’t often individualized enough for children with unique developmental disabilities.

“There are a lot of products on the market for assistive technology and adaptive equipment, but so many times additional adaptations are required to make things work for our kids,” Burns said. “Every one of these cars is so individualized that [our kids] can be immediately successful.”

Burns said the cross-institutional collaboration was valuable because of the ability to couple engineering perspectives with those of occupational and physical therapists.

“On our end, we’re so appreciative and grateful to have the OHIO students work with us and provide such awesome cars,” Burns said. “It’s freedom, joy and independence they were able to give our kids.”