UNF students build toy cars to aid children with disabilities

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University of North Florida (UNF) engineering and physical therapy students unveiled remote-controlled toy cars they built for children with disabilities Dec. 1 at UNF’s student union building. The event was a part of the Adaptive Toy Project, a program that equips students with the skills necessary to build the toy cars at no charge for participating families.

Husam Safar, an electrical engineering student who worked on one of the remote-controlled vehicles, said participating in this year's project was a rewarding experience for him.

"I spent a lot of time and hard work into it, and I just wanted to make sure when the kid sits in [the car] that it works and they enjoy it," Safar said. "It feels great to know we gave somebody an opportunity to move around and explore."

The initial stages of the project consisted of trying to pick the car and gather its necessary components, the UNF student revealed. Safar said it took some time for the group to discover how to build the car and modify it for their assigned child. In total, there were three electrical engineers and two mechanical engineers on Safar's team, which constructed a blue car for a little girl named Alba.

Kelly Wise, Alba’s mother, said she heard about the program from her daughter’s therapist and that she was happy to participate. Wise added that the blue car built for Alba is a perfect fit that will help her daughter move around and explore.

"The biggest thing is to be mobile," Wise said. "She is mobile crawling but at her age, being almost two, she's not walking. Being able to move and explore her environment will allow her to progress speech-wise and developmental wise. It's going to be awesome. They adapted it to fit her body and made it to where she can control it."

 Mary Lundy, an assistant professor of clinical and applied movement sciences at UNF, said the electrical, mechanical and physical therapy students who participated in the initiative answered a community need and gained valuable experience as an integrated team. The program was born out of an interdisciplinary, community-based service-learning class involved with pediatric technology.

"We enroll PT [physical therapy] students, we enroll engineering students," Lundy noted. "They work together, they develop a relationship with kids, with families and with community therapists. They talk about what the child needs, what their strengths are and what their physical therapy goals are.”

The toy cars will greatly benefit children with disabilities, Lundy said, because moving around will aid in their social and cognitive development. According to the assistant professor, the cars will give children with impaired mobility the power to explore their surroundings.

"We know from child development studies and research that children need to be able to move independently in their environment," she said. "It needs to be them doing the movement."

Professor Juan Aceros, who teaches the special topics class that prepares students for the Adaptive Toy Project, said this year's class received an A.

"They all surprised me," he said. "They know this project must be an A-plus project, and every single one of them did it. There are no Bs or Cs; they got it accomplished."

The UNF professor said his role was to put the project in perspective and show the students how impactful these toys can be to the lives of children with disabilities. He then provided resources and helped guide his students through the process of building the cars, but Aceros noted that they did all the hard work.

"A lot of weekends coming in working on the cars," he added. "A lot of trial and failure, a lot of waiting for certain components."

The students also communicated ideas with people in physical therapy and health to understand the needs of children with disabilities, Aceros said.

According to UNF, the Adaptive Toy Project just received an over $500,000 grant from the National Institutes of Health that will fund the course for five years. For more information on the program, visit www.unfadaptivetoyproject.com.

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