STEM’s Good Samaritans

Physics and engineering undergraduates and graduate physical therapy students participating in the GoBabyGo program at Rockhurst University in Kansas City, Missouri, modify electric–powered toy cars for children with disabilities. (photo by Jen Wewers)

Physics and engineering undergraduates and graduate physical therapy students participating in the GoBabyGo program at Rockhurst University in Kansas City, Missouri, modify electric–powered toy cars for children with disabilities. (photo by Jen Wewers)

To help children with disabilities become more mobile, educators and students participating in a worldwide outreach program called GoBabyGo use their science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) skills to modify electric–powered toy cars the children can operate. “GoBabyGo projects combine science, math, social studies, and embodied learning [an educational approach in which learning occurs both intellectually and through whole-body interactions],” says GoBabyGo’s creator Cole Galloway, professor of the Department of Physical Therapy at the University of Delaware in Newark, Delaware. Building the cars involves “brains, bodies, physics, and materials…math and science and doing good,” he observes.

“The dominant way we learn is through physical interactions with the world. The kids who [need the cars] have little to no mobility, so their interactions [are limited]. With the cars, their brains and bodies change; they can get smarter and stronger and more social,” he maintains. In addition, the cars cost less than most pediatric wheelchairs, and only readily available materials are required for the modifications. About 4,000 cars have been refurbished during the past two to three years, he reports.

While modifying the cars, students “learn patience and teamwork…They know they have to get this right for a person in the community, so the child will be able to use the car safely and comfortably,” he points out. The project also involves “creative engineering. It’s a great starter engineering, science, and math lab,” he contends, “and a way schools can address community problems.”  

GoBabyGo is funded by the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health. Galloway and the GoBabyGo staff hold training workshops for building the cars; they provide an instruction manual and resources for starting GoBabyGo programs at www.udel.edu/gobabygo. “We can advise [schools] on how [participating schools] have done it safely,” he notes.

Skye Donovan, department chair and associate professor of physical therapy at Marymount University in Arlington, Virginia, attended a GoBabyGo workshop and obtained a $2,000 grant from Marymount to launch a GoBabyGo initiative there. “I’m passionate about solving community problems [as a way] to learn science,” she declares. 

“It’s fantastic to get [physical therapy graduate students] involved in service learning, and [the project gives them] more buy-in to the assessment of patients. They’re making something with their hands, so they [pay] more attention to detail. And they look at patients in a different way,” she contends.

Donovan taught sixth-grade science teacher Luzdary Chamorro of Gunston Middle School in Arlington, Virginia, and sixth graders in an after-school science club to adapt the cars. Students learned how to wire electrical circuits, measure and cut PVC pipe, and use power tools, along with “basic safety principles,” she explains. “They can see how [science is] applied, instead of just learning for learning’s sake. They develop passion for something with real-life relevancy.”

GoBabyGo was “perfect with the STEM focus we have this year,” says Chamorro. “We did engineering, technology, science, and reaching out to the community,” she relates. “We’re donating cars to kids at the [Walter] Reed School” in Arlington, which offers special education programs for students ages 2–5 with disabilities.

Chamorro has taken the project to a deeper level. “We’re working on how to design the big red button [an accelerator that replaces a small button on the car’s steering wheel that is difficult for many special-needs children to use] using a 3D printer.” Eighth-grade math teacher Charles Fix, a retired electrical engineer, had the students disassemble the button, which costs $70, to learn about it, Chamorro notes. To save money, “now we’ll design the plastic components of the button and print them with the 3D printer,” she explains. 

In Ajax, Ontario, last year, science teacher Anna Farquhar and 14 eighth graders in an after-school club at Roméo Dallaire Public School built a car for a local elementary student. “We weren’t deterred when we were requested by our board of education to contact different levels of government to ensure that all safety standards were in place before releasing the car [to the child]. We learned not to give up,” she maintains. “We also had an engineer test the car to make sure it was structurally sound.”

Farquhar obtained funding from the Pollination Project of Berkeley, California, which provides $1,000 startup grants to social change projects. She and her students used half of the funds to build the car. “The students volunteered; they were self-directed and very eager,” she recalls.

“We looked at the structure of the car [and how to change it] to fit the child’s [needs],” she relates. “We had to determine how much weight the car could hold…We had to find an easy-to-use seat belt; we tested materials to ensure the seat belt wouldn’t fray. We used a very large dog collar as a seat belt.” 

Farquhar’s students “earned community service hours for their diploma,” she notes. Now teaching at Michaëlle Jean Public School in Ajax, Farquhar says students there will build two cars using her remaining grant funds.

Interdisciplinary Teams

A child operates a car retrofitted by students from Central Connecticut State University in New Britain, Connecticut.

A child operates a car retrofitted by students from Central Connecticut State University in New Britain, Connecticut.

At Central Connecticut State University (CCSU) in New Britain, Connecticut, some of Michele Dischino’s technology and engineering education students build GoBabyGo cars. Dischino, associate professor of technology and engineering education and faculty advisor for CCSU’s Collaboration for Assistive Resources, Equipment, and Services (CCSU CARES) student club, launched GoBabyGo there. One of her students, CCSU CARES Lead Student Advisor Megan Hislop, obtained $5,000 from CCSU’s Student Government Association to fund the first GoBabyGo workshop, says Dischino. 

Since then, students in other disciplines, such as engineering and social work, have participated. “Other students bring other skills, including ‘people skills’ for working with special-needs children,” Dischino observes. 

Middle and high school teachers contact her to get their students involved, and some of their schools have provided funding. “Bringing in middle schools and high schools has made it more valuable, given that my students are going to be teachers…It makes the experience even better because we can show [younger] students how they can use their [STEM] skills.” 

At Rockhurst University (RU) in Kansas City, Missouri, GoBabyGo “is student-led and student-run. We have graduate physical therapy students and physics and engineering undergraduates bringing their unique perspectives in science,” says Kendra Gagnon, associate professor of physical therapy education at RU. “And now the physical therapy students are starting to understand wiring and mechanics, and the engineering students are learning about posture and movement, all while solving real-world problems.”

“Interdisciplinary team building is becoming part of our health care system,” observes Karen Patterson, faculty associate for University of Wisconsin (UW)-Madison’s Doctor of Physical Therapy Program, which works with UW-Health’s outpatient pediatric rehabilitation program on GoBabyGo. Physical and occupational therapy graduate students team with biomedical engineering undergraduates to build the cars. “We have a rough manual, but [students] have to figure it out for themselves according to the needs of each child,” she explains.

For example, one child was on a ventilator, and the students “had to build a platform for [it]…The students came up with it, all on their own,” she reports.

This article originally appeared in the January 2016 issue of NSTA Reports, the member newspaper of the National Science Teachers Association. Each month, NSTA members receive NSTA Reports featuring news on science education, the association, and more. Not a member? Learn how NSTA can help you become the best science teacher you can be.

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