Making the world a more inclusive place

UND students’ year-long project delivers mobility to children with developmental delays

From left to right, John Merila, Conroy Unruh, Quinn Bass, Alicia Bullinger, Barb Delohery, Erica Eades and Dominik Steinhauer stand next to one of the two mobility devices created by Eades, Unruh and Merila for the nonprofit Anne Carlsen Center, who will use them to provide mobility for young children. Image courtesy of Anne Carlsen Center.

To understand this story, one needs to know a few things about early childhood development.

“There is a huge part of child development that is based on independent mobility and the child’s access to his or her environment,” said Alicia Bullinger, a physical therapist at the nonprofit Anne Carlsen Center in Grand Forks, N.D. “So many skills are dependent on children being able to explore safely and freely.”

Toddlers learn cause and effect through their exploration, according to Bullinger. Independent mobility is a crucial cognitive stepping stone in childhood development.

And that, Bullinger said, is why the work of a small team of UND students has the potential to change her team’s work in a big way.

Bullinger is a member of an early intervention team working with infants and toddlers to deliver physical independence.

The Center, a statewide organization headquartered in Jamestown, N.D., works with people of all ages in its mission of inclusivity for all.

The students Bullinger was referring to were mechanical engineering seniors at UND’s College of Engineering and Mines. Over the past year, they designed and fabricated a powered platform that can give young children lacking major motor skills the ability to move around in a variety of environments.

The project was part of the students’ year-long senior design project, a rite of passage for all mechanical engineering majors. Erica Eades, Conroy Unruh and John Merila worked alongside the Anne Carlsen Center to develop a pair of these devices for toddlers with developmental delays.

“When you give kids mobility, you give them independence, and then you get to really learn what their interests are,” Bullinger continued. “You get to watch them blossom.

“I’m really excited for families to see that in their children, and for children to build their abilities in a newfound mobility.”

For less than $3,000, the UND team developed two devices that can accompany a variety of booster seats and control configurations. Eades put the finishing touches on them from her apartment in Grand Forks. Image courtesy of Erica Eades.

Good challenge for a good cause

After a previous internship where she assisted the development of medical technologies, project manager Erica Eades became confident in her interests in engineering. The proposal from the Anne Carlsen Center quickly went to the top of her list out of the 25-or-so projects offered by course instructor Dominik Steinhauer, a senior lecturer in the College of Engineering & Mines.

Erica Eades

“Working through that internship made me realize how rewarding it was to apply engineering skills to different projects that benefit human life,” Eades, a lifelong Grand Forks resident, said. “I knew this project with the Anne Carlsen Center would be a good challenge for me.”

The chance to help kids in her hometown brought a consistent excitement to the project, something that Bullinger and her supervisor, Ramona Gunderson, recognized right away.

“We’re all so pleased about how well the project went throughout the past two semesters,” Gunderson told UND Today. “The learning experience for the students and the end product for us creates a win-win situation.”

Conventionally produced mobility devices, especially for children younger than 3 years old, cost far too much for most families and facilities to access. Also, with regard to insurance coverage, most children are denied access on the basis that they’re not proficient drivers within a single, 45-minute session using one.

“Then parents go back to waiting for their kids to be cognitively ready for such devices,” Bullinger said. “After connecting with a professor doing this work in Michigan, producing powered devices to start working with kids on her own, we started to figure out how to bring this mobility to our early intervention work.”

That’s when the Center connected with Steinhauer, who communicates with organizations and companies to develop bonafide proposals for mechanical engineering seniors. The design projects are offered through courses Mechanical Engineering 487 and 488, providing a full academic year to develop and execute them.

“Throughout the two semesters, I teach students about project management and what their life might look like once they enter the working world,” said Steinhauer, who also serves as a faculty advisor for multiple projects each year. Senior Lecturer Dustin McNally was the advisor for the Eades, Unruh, Mirlea team. “I meet with each group at certain points in the course to get updates on projects, and then I work with the class to develop their presentations for the end of the year.”

The pair of courses is a culmination of the technical, verbal and written skills students will need as engineers in the workforce.

This is an example of what one of the devices looked like on computer-aided design software, where the team mapped out the structure of the platforms and how it would all come together in a fully fabricated product. Image courtesy of Erica Eades.

Meeting demands on a budget

As project manager, Eades mapped out the timeline of the project that would keep their endeavor not only on time, but within the budget offered by the Anne Carlsen Center. For $3,000, the trio was tasked with fabricating two devices that could fit the Center’s needs. The devices needed to move at walking speeds, up to three or four miles per hour, and come with interchangeable controls – meaning the operations could be controlled by the child or the therapist. Also, the controls needed to be mountable anywhere on the device.

“You never know exactly what a child is going to have that they can actively use with purpose,” Bullinger said. “If a child needs to use their thigh to power the device, we need to mount the switches in that area. If it’s their head that they can use, then we need a different arrangement.”

These mobility platforms also needed to be lightweight enough to be lifted by two adults in and out of a vehicle for transportation, as well as sturdy enough to handle more than a carpeted surface. Bullinger and her team are anticipating children to be able to use them on accessible playgrounds with varied terrain near the end of their training.

Last but not least, the devices needed to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act, meaning the motorized platforms needed to be able to fit through doors, hallways and drive up certain angles of incline.

Eades worked with Unruh on the assembly side of things; Unruh also researched the use of batteries with the device and was principally responsible for writing the final report and project manual to be shared with the Anne Carlsen Center. Merila, a sophomore, came into the project at the start of the spring semester to provide support on the control side. He designed the parent control system, in the form of a remote control, and coded the mini-computer that enables the onboard controls for the device’s joystick and button systems.

Fortunately, according to Steinhauer, most projects are fabricated before Spring Break to allow for fine-tuning and more of a focus on writing and presenting before the end of the semester. Even so, some teams have had to make alternative arrangements for their projects’ completion. Due to the coronavirus removing students from campus, Eades completed the assembly’s finishing touches from her apartment and recruited her mom to help transport and test its capabilities.

“Our team was lucky to have our project able to be completed amid this pandemic,” Eades said. “This was our whole year of work, in this design, and to see it all come together was pretty special.”

Eades, who is planning to pursue a master’s degree in Grand Forks, said that she would be willing to keep working with the Anne Carlsen Center as they begin to integrate the devices into their work. The team also produced an operating manual as part of their overall project. Image courtesy of Anne Carlsen Center.

Reasons to be proud

Now that the semester is finished, and the devices have been handed off to the Anne Carlsen Center, Eades has assured Bullinger and her team that she will be able to help show how the powered platforms are used, how they can be adjusted and what to do should problems arise.

The now-graduate has made plans to stay at UND and pursue a master’s degree, which will let her keep working with the Center, should they need assistance.

Gunderson commented that she’s looking forward to seeing the results in action, as soon as they’re able to start interacting in person once again.

“Like Alicia said, this device’s applications affect so many areas of development and open a whole new world for these kids,” Gunderson said. “We’re just very excited to get started with them and provide support to families and their children.”

Bullinger already has an idea of how they will be implemented into a 12-week training period comprised of 60-minute sessions where kids learn how to explore using their newfound mobility. Overall, she is entirely pleased with the work done by Eades, Unruh and Merila.

“I hope that they are proud of their work, because we’re really happy,” she said. “I hope they’re proud of what they’ve done for the lives that they’re affecting.”