Biomedical engineering undergrads retrofit car for toddler client’s needs

From left, Nikita Thomas, Alvin Mukalel and Deanna Patelis, all biomedical engineering third-years, work on a Go Baby Go car. (Heidi Hall/Vanderbilt University)

The toy car’s body looks the same as when students in Amanda Lowery’s Material Manipulations course received it, but the features inside are virtually unrecognizable.

The hard, angular seat is gone, replaced by one contoured to hold a toddler securely in place. Instead of a steering wheel, there’s a colorful drum with a handprint to push that makes the car move. A parent-operated remote control determines left and right turns. Padding protects the driver’s knees.

When it’s complete, the car will go to 2-year-old Max, whose cerebral palsy keeps him from using it the way other children might. It’s the result of Vanderbilt University School of Engineering partnering with a Belmont University occupational therapy class and the nonprofit Go Baby Go, which retrofits battery-operated cars for kids with disabilities.

The modified car is on the left.

“The children being helped by Belmont’s class are part of a study on early powered mobility,” said Lowery, assistant professor of the practice of biomedical engineering. “There’s a growing body of research that shows, if you let a child with disabilities move around using cars like these, you improve his or her cognitive development.”

For Lowery’s students, it’s an opportunity to meet a client – Max, in this case – and then apply what they’ve learned to serving him.

“I’m definitely using my instrumentation knowledge,” said Deanna Patelis (BME’17). “We’re physically using tools in a way we typically don’t get to in the classroom. This is the first time I’ve rewired something even though I knew I had the skill set.”

Alvin Mukalel (BME’17) said he appreciated the opportunity to collaborate with students in a completely different field.

“It’s important for us to be cognizant of the design constraints for a specific population,” he said. “My brother is studying occupational therapy at another university, so this helps me better understand what he’s doing, too.”

There will be more retrofitted toy cars coming out of Vanderbilt, Lowery said. She plans to take what her undergraduate students design, write a curriculum and create a kit for her Vanderbilt Summer Academy high school students to assemble.


Heidi Hall, 615-322-6614
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