As appeared in Life Sciences Indiana, September 30, 2013
A two-year old boy in northern Indiana with cerebral palsy has his first set of wheels, powered by the minds of two University of Notre Dame engineering graduates. Unable to crawl or walk on his own, and too young for a powered wheelchair, Austin Rousselow is now driving a Little Tikes motorized toy Hummer car the students re-engineered, so he could operate it using only his fingers. While the toy is helping Austin make great strides in his development, it's also giving him newfound freedom and confidence; it's the first time he's been able to move on his own without being carried or held.
The Hummer project was the brainchild of Elise Gettleman, a pediatric physical therapist at Memorial Children's Therapy Center in South Bend, who treats Austin. She had read in a physical therapy journal about the benefits of modifying motorized toys to give children with disabilities access to early powered mobility.
"It piqued my interest. Movement is very important in life when children learn to crawl and walk," says Gettleman. "It's not only moving in space; it helps in a lot of areas of development. It helps with cognition, how we think and how we understand. It also has a big impact on social understanding and communication."
Through Notre Dame's Student Engineers Reaching Out (SERO) program, students had modified a long list of smaller toys for Memorial Hospital of South Bend, but Gettleman's idea to redesign the Hummer was the most ambitious yet. Derek Wolf and Jake Darnell, both 2013 Notre Dame engineering graduates, decided to take on the challenge during their final two semesters of college.
"Initially, we thought it would be pretty easy, then quickly realized it was by far the most complicated toy we'd ever done," says Wolf, who studied mechanical engineering. "Class is all on paper, projects don't really have an impact, but with this, we had an end goal that was worthwhile—the most worthwhile end goal we've had in school."
The students' mission was to customize the power toy, typically operated by pedals and a steering wheel, so Austin could drive it independently. The team removed the steering wheel and gas pedal and replaced it with a motor and buttons Austin could press to make the car move, which required Darnell to redesign the car's circuitry.
"The electrical wasn't too complicated, but trying to figure out the best way to move the steering wheel was kind of difficult," says Darnell. "There were a lot of obstructions under the car, and it was hard to figure out how to couple the steering axle to the motor."
Because Austin is unable to sit unsupported, the students also mounted an infant car seat to the Hummer. The team delivered the car to Austin at the end of the school year and watched the little boy take it for the first "test drive"; Darnell, now a design engineer at Garmin, has a photo of the moment framed on his office desk.
"By far, the most rewarding part was getting to see Austin drive it. We weren't able to see how powerful it was until later in the project," says Darnell. "I never really experienced what it was like and how amazing it was to [use my skills to help people]. This was the first time I felt like I'd really made a difference in someone's life with my engineering. It was amazing."
Austin's mother, Jamie Rousselow, says the Hummer is more than just a toy and has changed how her two year-old approaches everyday challenges.
"Austin is the type of boy who's afraid to try new things. With the Hummer, he feels like he can move himself around without much limitation; it gives him the courage to do more and try more," says Rousselow. "He really wants to use his equipment now; before, it was kind of a challenge and we had to talk him into doing it. Now, because he can do things on his own a little better, it gives him a sense of freedom, and that's a big encouragement for him."
The car is being kept at Austin's physical therapy office, so other young children with disabilities can drive it. Gettleman says recent technology is enabling younger children to use powered mobility, such as power wheelchairs, but kids are often afraid to try the chairs. She believes using the Hummer will help patients "warm up" to powered mobility and determine if it will be a viable option.
"It's a little scary when you suddenly have something you touch and it's making you move in space, rather than being carried around," says Gettleman. "[The Hummer] allows him to move to his parent or somebody and initiate interaction, whereas if a child can't move, they can't initiate that."
Wolf, who is now an engineer at Cummins Inc., says the experience changed his career goals and that he'd ultimately like to work in the adaptive technology field, where he can use his engineering talents to improve people's lives—an endeavor he first experienced by helping a two year-old boy get his first set of wheels.