JACKSONVILLE – The third story ballroom in the University of North Florida Student Union was quiet while families outside in the lobby sat anxiously for the doors to open so they could end months of waiting. At the same time, teams of engineering and physical therapy students inside the ballroom were just as anxious, ready to unveil projects they’ve been working on all semester.
When the doors opened, families rushed in to greet the teams they’ve only seen a few times since the start of the project. In no time, a chaos akin to children on Christmas morning replaced tranquility in the ballroom.
The Dec. 1 event marked the end of a semester-long class that brought eight children happiness in the form of an extremely specialized toy meant to cater to their specific need or physical condition. Formally known as the UNF Adaptive Toy Project, the month-long class is a way for 40 students to not only get hands-on work, but get involved in the community while doing it This marks the project’s fourth year and because of a recent $500,000 grant from the National Institutes of Health, the project will continue on for at least another five years.
While the majority of recipients were younger and received electric cars, six high school students received assistive technology, such as a customized walking cane and a sensory wall.
Last time they met, student teams measured the height, weight and range of motion of their assigned child, so they could design and build an electric car just for them.
Two of the eight children that received specially-designed electric cars were from Orange Park. Jedidiah Quick, a three-year-old who among his 30 diagnoses, lives with Cri-du-chat, a rare condition in which a piece of chromosome 5 is missing. Because of this condition, Quick, despite being three, has developed about as much as a 9-month-old mentally. Physically, he has a low muscle tone and a lapse in physical development.
Physical therapy student Michael Golden is the brains behind the healing aspect of Quick’s car. In his initial meeting with the child, Golden met with Quick’s physical therapist and family and learned about the three-year-old’s special needs he would address in designing the car.
“Our car needed to address Jedi’s posture control, the shifting of his weight and his ability to sit up and stay up,” Golden said. “I had to take this information I had learned and relay it back to the engineers so that they could design the car specifically to meet these needs.”
A second meeting occurred at UNF with the entire team soon after Golden’s first meeting with Quick. It was here that the engineers on the team assessed physical measurements such as height, weight, his placement when seated in the car, the size of Quick’s oxygen tank and more. Using this data, they adapted the car into the car Quick found waiting for him in the ballroom last Friday. The final product had an adaptive support system to ensure his posture is being controlled, a flashing joystick to help teach Quick the connection between the joystick and the vehicle’s motion and a trunk spot to hold Quick’s oxygen tank, which not only affected the space available but the weight as well.
After getting Quick settled in to the car, both parties were excited about the final product.
“You have no idea how incredible this is,” said Lindsey Quick, Jedidiah’s mother. “This will give him the freedom to move, the freedom to play with his brothers and sister, instead of sitting on our laps watching.”
For Golden, the opportunity to put his education to work and help someone in need was what made this class so attractive.
“It’s so rewarding to see Jedi this happy,” Golden said. “That’s the reason I went into physical therapy – I’m doing work that will change people’s lives, make them better and to see Jedi like this, to know he has a new way to explore his environment, is something you can’t beat.”
Another Clay County child, Oliver Lockwood, was treated to an experience he’s never had before behind the wheel of his new electric car.
“He’s deaf and blind so he’s never had an electric car like this to drive around in,” said Oliver’s mother, Melody York. “For him to have something like this, and be able to control it by himself is so awesome.”
The challenge behind designing Lockwood’s car was making it drivable for someone who has both complete hearing and sight loss. According to Stephanie Habyrl, the physical therapy student on the team assigned to Lockwood, a contrast sensor was mounted to the undercarriage of the vehicle. When the sensor locates contrast – in this instance, a line of white tape surrounded by lines of dark tape – the car will move automatically to follow the line.
The mechanical engineer on the team, Michael Hevert, said the electrical engineering students focused on making the sensor work while he and the other mechanical engineering students worked to attach the sensor to the car and widen the vehicle’s turn radius.
For Habryl, the experience of thie project was just as new as Lockwood’s experience behind the wheel of his new electric car.
“I never thought about doing something like this, but this class taught me that there is an entirely different side, especially with kids with disabilities,” Habryl said. “It’s so awesome seeing my work affect someone in this way.”