There is a room in the Center for Health Sciences that has mechanical robots, a Wii balance board, and, sometimes, tiny tykes motoring around. This unlikely combination is the basis for a collaborative research project among three Ithaca College faculty members.
Sharon Stansfield (computer science), Carole Dennis (occupational therapy), and Helene Larin (physical therapy) are developing a device that will aid children with physical impairments or developmental delays to move freely and explore their surroundings.
After spending years in the professional field, Professor Dennis had good reason to get involved with the project. “I’ve had lots of experience with little kids,” she says, “and I’ve been frustrated that the technology didn’t exist to allow kids with severe motor disabilities to be able to explore their environment.”
The prototype the team has created consists of a baby seat affixed to a Wii balance board and a basic robot. As the baby leans in the seat, the software recognizes the movements and propels the baby through the environment.
The device is also equipped with sonar in order to sense objects in its path so as to avoid crashes.
Initial tests involved three healthy infants ranging in age from six to eight months. The researchers hope to develop the apparatus to provide mobility to infants as young as four months old.
Infants diagnosed with cerebral palsy, spina bifida, and other impairments will participate in future testing of the device.
There is a reason why this device needs to be accessible to children of varying ages, says Professor Dennis. “If you don’t learn something during what’s called a critical period in life, you will never relearn to do it as well later,” she explains.
“Babies who aren’t mobile actually don’t develop cognitively and socially as well,” adds Professor Stansfield.
A handful of Ithaca College students got the opportunity to assist in this research project. Occupational therapy major Lauren Cresser ’11 has worked on the project for a year now and says that the most exciting part was when she got to work with the infants on the actual robots. This interactive learning process is what she thrives on as an occupational therapy student. “It has been good to learn the many different disciplines and problem-solving skills involved,” she says.
Professor Dennis stresses the importance of this project as a learning tool for students. “Within the course of the year, they will have the chance to analyze and publish their research,” she says. “The professional development aspect is enough.”
Madeline Smith ’10 was one of the students who published a paper about her research and even presented it on behalf of the College last June at a conference in Las Vegas. “Presenting my work as an undergraduate was a great experience, and one that has prepared me for graduate school,” she says.
Smith even wrote some of the software that runs the robot using data from the Wii. “It was really exciting to see all the work that we had put in come to life and actually work!”
Although this project has a few more years of research and testing, Professor Dennis is optimistic. “If we could even allow a few kids who haven’t been able to move the opportunity to move, that would be wonderful,” she says. So, maybe encouraging the use of video game consoles at a young age is a good thing. Just ask one of the test subjects. Although they may not be quick to answer. They still need to learn to talk, too!
Tots on Bots in Action
Check out video of volunteer babies testing out the robot platform prototype in Professor Dennis's lab at Ithaca College.
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