A 5-year-old girl from St. Albans has limited mobility due to muscular dystrophy, and during her school day that poses a big challenge. But now thanks to some professors and students at Saint Michael's College, she'll have a new way to get around: a battery-operated ride-on car.
"She can walk, but it’s very tiring for her. So her parents had a great example — she can walk to the playground, but then when she’s on the playground, she’s too tired to play," explains St. Michael's education professor Mary Beth Doyle about 5-year-old Katie's experience. "Now she can drive the car to the playground, get out of the car and then play."
At the St. Michael's MakerSpace, students have undertaken a project to convert toy Power Wheels cars into vehicles to help kids with disabilities get around independently.
"It’s basically a mini car that is battery powered," explains freshman Sarah Hunzeker, a secondary education major. "And you know, it has an accelerator and you can put it into reverse. I think there are two basic speeds: you can either go at like a slow pace or a little bit of a faster pace.
"And just seriously, you can zoom around in this car wherever you want. And then I think maybe every couple hours you need to charge it, plug it in and charge it. And they come in all different shapes and sizes."
Hunzeker points out one of the cars currently at the MakerSpace which looks like a dune buggy, while another looks more like a pick-up truck. The students will work to modify the cars so that they are better to use for kids who need help with mobility.
"Some students might not have the leg muscle to press the main power, go, so what we’re working on with the electronic piece was just changing the wire to essentially make the accelerator go by the push of a button," explains freshman Annie Ladue, also a secondary education major.
"So a student that might have weaker back muscle would have more motivation to sit up if the button was behind their back. So we would put it, modify it, to be behind their back to make the car go so they can sit up. And so yeah, just basically like making it easily accessible for all students ... 'cause all students with disabilities are different."
Doyle says the project started at the University of Delaware where it was called "GoBabyGo!" It provides some plans to help groups, and then others can share their own group modifications.
Doyle and St. Michael's biology professor Donna Bozzone, along with a friend and electronics expert Bob Dana, worked with students over the summer to modify Katie's car.
"For Katie, the original switch was the foot pedal — most of them are foot pedals — and she has difficulty flexing her foot given the braces she wears. And so for her, we put a light touch switch here," Doyle said, pushing a button on the steering wheel, which made the wheels move.
Dana designed some important safety measures to the wiring to prevent the cars from overheating. Doyle and Bozzone recently collected used Power Wheels cars from local families so a new group of students can experiment.
Doyle showed off a tiny, pink VW beetle.
"Originally this was designed as experimenting and helping our students understand the concepts, but we're likely to give this to a student who needs it," Doyle says of the car. "And the position of the switch for this one, it was wired in such a way that the seating board was inserted to help somebody sit forward and ... a child who's working on head control. The switch is behind their head, so if they pick their head up, and they tap it here," she says and pushes a round disk, which made the wheels move.
"Depending on the individual needs of the students, we can put the switches anywhere," Doyle adds. "We would have the physical therapist make the decision on where the button should go."
Doyle says the car for Katie is still a work in progress.
"[Her parents] have said that the wheels are too loud in the school, so we’re really problem solving around how can we make the wheels more quiet?" Doyle explains. "So we’ll use one of the older Power Wheel[s] cars to experiment with ways to quiet the wheels."
Hunzeker said for her and LaDue, seeing a video of Katie trying out her new car inspired them to join the project.
"We were both just shocked and in awe," Hunzeker said. "When you hear of someone who has a type of muscular dystrophy and then all of a sudden see her zooming around and then kids following after her and chasing her like, 'Oh my gosh, she has [a] Power Wheels car — she’s so cool!' ... Although we weren’t there in person, the video is what, seven second long? It’s so satisfying."
The project has brought students from all different majors to the MakerSpace.
"It’s really amazing how we sort of as students have gotten out of our comfort zones," said junior Mia DelleBovi, an early education and American studies major. "And I mean, I was using a saw, a power tool, and just things that I would say, ‘Mia — I can’t do this,’ you know, but I was able to.
"And just the teamwork and just meeting students that you know, as business majors or science majors, I wouldn’t have been working with them. But this really creates this community, and that we’re all together achieving one goal."
"Look at our students... This is what’s so exciting for us," said Bozzone. "Obviously, I mean, it’s a perfect match — our institution has a wonderful tradition of service. And this is a wonderful opportunity for students to have a way to combine their impulse for service along with ... some educational opportunities.
"Right? I mean, you guys have learned about wiring. You didn’t wake up that morning thinking that was gonna happen," Bozzone says to some students. "And so some real technical things. It’s a perfect match for us."
Bozzone would like to see the space grow into a garage of sorts where kids could come to get a car of their own.
"We really would like to be able to have some number [of cars] — I mean, we sort of spitball it and say half a dozen cars — that are all wired, and so that when a child comes that it could be modified for the needs of that particular child," Bozzone explained.
That will of course take money, for new cars and the modifications.
"A car in total is about between $300 and $400," said Doyle. "Which is a lot less than an electric wheelchair. So in terms of independent mobility, that’s really what we’re going for — independent mobility for kids."
And they say, a lot more fun for a kid.
Disclosure: Saint Michael's College is an underwriter of VPR.