UD's Early Learning Center enables implementation of mobility immersion
Christina Ragonesi works with young Will at the University's Early Learning Center.
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Editor's note: This is the second in a series of articles about research taking place at the Early Learning Center, The College School, and the University of Delaware Laboratory Preschool. Housed in the College of Education and Public Policy, these centers provide valuable services to children and families in the region, but they also play an important role in the academic mission of the University.

More than 400 UD students from every college are involved in these centers each year as observers, lesson planners, student teachers, mentors, and researchers. Faculty and graduate students from across the University use the centers as "living laboratories" for studies on topics ranging from social and emotional development, to physical therapy, to early literacy.

In the fall of 2009, the Laboratory Preschool and The College School will join the Early Learning Center at the University's complex on Wyoming Road in Newark in new, expanded facilities that will provide a state-of-the-art resource for groundbreaking research and educational excellence.

1:07 p.m., Aug. 3, 2009----What happens when a toddler or preschooler who is immobile due to physical disabilities suddenly gains mobility through the use of a robot-assisted power chair? Will other children and adults treat him differently now that he is mobile? Will he become more assertive? More vocal? More interactive?

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Thanks to the unique research environment provided by the University of Delaware's Early Learning Center (ELC), Cole Galloway and Christina Ragonesi hope to soon have solid data to help answer that question. Galloway is an associate professor in UD's Department of Physical Therapy, and Ragonesi is a graduate student working on a Ph.D. through UD's multidisciplinary Biomechanics and Movement Science (BIOMS) program. She will soon begin work on a doctor of physical therapy degree as well.

For the past several years, Galloway has been collaborating with Sunil Agrawal, professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering, and his graduate student, Xi Chen, on research funded by the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health aimed at providing early power mobility to young children with special needs. The team is developing a miniature power chair, armed with a robotic brain and affectionately known as “UD2,” that keeps kids safe and empowers them to explore the world while also providing valuable data to the researchers.

Under Galloway's direction, Ragonesi has been training three-year-old Will in the operation of a power chair. To date, his use of the chair has been limited to open spaces, like the ELC gym, that are large enough to accommodate a standard pediatric power chair. In the classroom, Will is still consigned to sitting and watching while the flurry of preschool activity goes on around him.

Now, because UD2 is small enough to fit in the classroom, Will is being given the opportunity to share more deeply in the experiences of a typical preschooler through all-day immersion with his peers and teachers.

“We want him to be involved in all of the daily activities of his preschool peers,” Galloway says, “like chasing, sharing, hiding, and even a bit of misbehaving. He needs to learn how to use UD2 so that he is involved in the dynamic, active physical and social interactions that preschoolers are so interested in. It's kind of analogous to an undergraduate learning Spanish by being dropped off in Spain.”

To test the effect of the power chair, Ragonesi is measuring Will's speech, social interactions, and participation in activities both before and after he uses UD2 in the classroom. Galloway believes that this model of “mobility immersion,” in which a child uses a power mobility device in class throughout the day, is the first of its kind.

“What's critical here,” Galloway says, “is early mobility immersion. When a child has unlimited access to mobility for long periods of time each day across all the settings of daily life, we believe that the mobility device has a better chance of becoming 'embodied,' or viewed by the child as an integral part of himself. Without embodiment, the device is just a tool that gets the child from one place to another but may not significantly change the quality or quantity of his interactions.”

“Just because a child can drive doesn't mean he can use his mobility in a functional way,” Galloway continues. “Will's past experience has constrained him and taught him a kind of learned helplessness.”

In the classroom, Will typically moves from one activity to another only when a teacher physically picks him up and moves him. UD2 enables him to independently decide when, where, and with whom he wants to go. Galloway and Ragonesi are especially interested in seeing how long it takes Will, who has driven a power chair for many months in the ELC halls and on the playground, to independently use UD2 for mobility and socialization within a new context -- the bustling metropolis that is a preschool classroom.

So far this new context has resulted in interesting insight into the differences between mobility and socialization. “The first time he used UD2 in the classroom,” Ragonesi says,” he drove to a station to play with blocks and stayed there for 45 minutes. Then he drove to another activity and stayed there for 45 minutes. This is quite different from typically developing children, who rarely spend that length of time at any one activity.”

“Children like Will, who have been immobile in a classroom setting for a relatively long period time, simply get used to the pattern of socialization that accompanies immobility,” she continues. “But his classmates better watch out, because Will won't be like this for too long. We are extremely lucky to be present as he learns to use his mobility for socialization.”

Galloway is grateful for the environment provided by the ELC, which is not only enabling him and Ragonesi to carry out the study but actually welcoming their work and all of its potential implications. He credits the ELC administration, teachers, therapists, and Will's family for their commitment to breaking new ground.

“The ELC has provided great support for this project,” says Steven Stanhope, who served as interim dean of UD's College of Health Sciences from January to July 2009 . “This project is not only helping Will as an individual but also establishing a model for how mobility can be provided in the preschool classroom for all kids with physical disabilities. And it's a great example of the many cross-college collaborations in rehabilitation sciences at UD.”

The results of the research team's work to date have shown that very young children, even those with cognitive disabilities, can learn to drive and that the mobility conferred by robot-assisted devices has a positive impact on their development. And Galloway is confident that the current project will provide further evidence of the benefits of early mobility.

His biggest concern is how to provide that mobility in the future to all of the children who could benefit from it. “We don't have a commercial source of robot-assisted power chairs,” he says, “and there's nothing worse than offering this resource to a child during a research project and knowing that we can't sustain it with a commercially available device.”

“Waiting is not an option,” he adds. “By the time kids are typically fitted for power chairs, they're at least three years old, if not much older. By then, they've lost out on several years' worth of critical learning opportunities.”

David Weir, director of UD's Office of Economic Innovation and Partnerships, is working to address Galloway's concerns. “The research program that Cole and his colleagues have undertaken is an important component of the campus-wide initiative to build a world-class rehabilitation capability,” he says.

According to Weir, a study has been initiated to determine the economic potential for devices of this type, including identifying commercial enterprises engaged in the rehabilitation marketplace. A workable prototype unit with initial cost estimate is ready for first-level patient testing, and discussions have begun with potential business partners for advanced testing and eventual commercialization of the robot.

Article by Diane Kukich
Photo by Kathy F. Atkinson

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