Tots on Bots

Students research infant mobility. 

A child first experiences independent movement as early as six months through crawling and walking.  Mobility in infants and young children is essential to their physical growth and social development. Children suffering from disabilities like cerebral palsy and Down syndrome, however, find it difficult to be active, which can lead to depressed motivation and a lack of self-confidence when socializing with other infants.

Over the past two years, students and professors in the School of Humanities and Sciences and the School of Health and Human Performance have been researching ways to help children become more mobile in order to help them develop their cognitive and social skills. Their work has led to groundbreaking robotic research to assist kids with disabilities as young as six months old in interacting with their environment.

Physical therapy, occupational therapy, and computer science majors and professors have engineered Pioneer 3 robots to help children move independently. The robots, which are sold commercially, are one of the world’s most popular research robots. Its small base is equipped with a flat platform, and its functional wheels are powered with keys or joysticks.

“We use the robots to see how fast young children can work a robot by themselves,” says Kelsey Baker ’10, a graduate student in occupational science and therapy. “Kids can’t use a wheelchair until they’re five years old, and this can give parents another option.”

One robot is fitted with a Wii balance board. When a child shifts his or her weight to the left, the Pioneer 3 moves in that direction. It is also equipped with sonar technology to prevent collisions with people or other objects.

“It’s neat to see two infants come in and use the joystick to maneuver themselves around the room,” says junior clinical health studies major Camille Dunham. “We felt a sense of accomplishment when a 10-month-old girl was successful in doing this.”

Another robot, which was specifically designed by the research group, has three buttons that can be pressed to move in different directions. It is intended for children who have motor impairments and cannot lean in a specific direction.

Students and professors working on the project value independent mobility because it opens up opportunities for infants and young children during their most important developmental time.

“At that age, it’s all about self-exploration, and it’s not something they can do without having the ability to move around,” says Dustin Newcomb, a senior occupational science and therapy major. “This really gives infants the opportunity to blend into the environment much earlier.”

Occupational therapy students are required to take two group research classes to wrap up their programs at the college. But for students like Newcomb, the decision to take part in this research wasn’t just about fulfilling graduation requirements.

“This is a new and emerging field of study,” he says. “There hasn’t been a lot of work done on infant mobility, and it’s exciting to be working with these robots.”

Watch toddlers Jackson and Mia test drive the mobile robot system.