June 24, 2019
From left: Engineering students Omar Ijazi, Anupam Adhikari, Susana Lainez, Amy Abraham and Lan Bui used their design skills to help create mobility devices for children with disabilities.
When pediatric physical therapist Margaret Scholl wanted to create mobility devices for her youngest patients, students in the UTDesign Engineering Projects in Community Service (EPICS) program at The University of Texas at Dallas helped get her project rolling.
“So many children under age 3 are robbed of movement experiences,” Scholl said. “I have struggled for years with families when it comes to equipment. Most funding sources will not even consider paying for a power wheelchair if the child is under 3.”
Scholl and other physical therapists are helping those families by converting commonly available children’s toys into mobility devices. Inspired by a national program, Scholl founded Early Wheels, a nonprofit designed to provide pediatric patients with the modified toys. She then reached out to the University’s Erik Jonsson School of Engineering and Computer Science for technical help.
EPICS students are currently working on a Hover Buggy project, a custom hoverboard modification, for Early Wheels.
Scholl worked with EPICS instructor Terrell Bennett MS’07, PhD’16 to develop her project and found what she needed — original designs for the toy modifications that were created by undergraduate students in the EPICS design course.
“I knew what I wanted to do, but not how to do it,” she said. “These programs usually take 6-volt ride-on cars and adapt them so they can run with a single switch input. But what about kids with no upper extremity function?”
Scholl had learned through research that regular ride-on cars could be driven using multiple switch inputs and that the speed and jerkiness of the cars could be controlled using a specific open-source electronic prototyping platform.
“This was when I reached out to UTD because I knew I was in way over my head,” she said.
Modeled after a similar program at Purdue University, EPICS at UT Dallas is a one-credit, one-semester course that provides students with the opportunity to practice their design skills by completing projects submitted by nonprofit organizations. Projects not completed in one semester are passed along to the next team.
EPICS students gain broad experience through their projects, in part because they meticulously document their process. Each project encompasses technical writing, research and client relations — more than a typical undergraduate assignment.
“The EPICS teams must ensure the device modifications can be easily reproduced using a variety of models, and they deliver a manual with build instructions,” Bennett said. “These devices can be re-created for around $400.”
EPICS at UTD
UTDesign EPICS is a service-learning design program where undergraduate students work on multidisciplinary teams to solve problems while leaving a lasting impact on the community. UTDesign EPICS has joined the university consortium of more than 25 universities and colleges engaging students in human-centered design in a service-learning framework. To learn more, go to the EPICS website.
EPICS students are especially interested in helping young children achieve their potential.
“The mind is active — that drive to explore is what facilitates the learning process,” said Susana Lainez, an electrical engineering major.
Currently, EPICS serves 14 organizations with 19 projects. In their first project for Early Wheels, the EPICS teams modified a Power Wheels Wild Thing. A second project currently underway, called Hover Buggy, is incorporating a joystick controller into a hoverboard, a type of powered skateboard.
“Ride-on vehicles have a relatively short shelf life,” Scholl said. “If something can be standardized with a hoverboard, then we can make a consistent product for years. One of my most fun experiences was sitting on my living room floor and taking apart a hoverboard with some students.”
Students think EPICS provides a different, more immediately relevant way of learning.
“We heard about EPICS from a presentation in linear algebra,” said Amy Abraham, an electrical engineering major. “We were interested in the early experience of design because it’s totally different to participate in a real-world project.”
Early Wheels recruits volunteer groups to assemble the vehicles using the plans provided by the UT Dallas EPICS team. Scholl said students in grades 8-12 at Parish Episcopal School in Dallas are using the plans this summer to construct new mobility devices for community service hours while learning about the design process.
“They will use some of the ideas born at UTD,” she said.