High school students participate in 'babies driving robots' project
Ponni Vel, a student at the Charter School of Wilmington, "drives" the robot UD2 to a preschool classroom at the Early Learning Center.
Allaa Megeid works coding video footage.
Carina Blair in the preschool classroom observation booth, where she works with equipment for video-recording in the classroom.
Charter School of Wilmington students are pictured with two alumni who are now undergraduates at UD. Pictured are, from left, Allaa Megeid, UD undergrads Jie Ge and Manasa Sridhar, doctoral student Christina Ragonesi, Emily Yang, Ponni Vel and Carina Blair.

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8:41 a.m., Jan. 4, 2010----Four students from the Charter School of Wilmington (CSW) gained valuable research experience last summer on a University of Delaware project that has gained national attention -- robot-assisted infant mobility.

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Under the direction of UD doctoral student Christina Ragonesi, the four high school students -- Allaa Mageid, Ponni Vel, Emily Yang, and Carina Blair -- participated in a variety of activities in the classroom at UD's Early Learning Center, including filming, data collection and coding. In addition to Ragonesi, they worked with two former CSW students who are now doing undergraduate research in the infant mobility project.

The work undertaken by Mageid was supported by a grant from the National Institutes of Health to Cole Galloway, associate professor in UD's Department of Physical Therapy, through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA). The other three students volunteered their time.

Ragonesi's doctoral research focuses on the effects of early mobility training on socialization development in very young children with mobility impairments, such as cerebral palsy and spina bifida. The project over the summer involved giving a small mobility device to a special-needs three-year-old in his preschool classroom. In this project, Ragonesi tracked the extent to which the child drove the device in the classroom as well as how his social behavior changed across time.

Galloway believes that this model is the first of its kind. What's critical, he says, is early mobility immersion so that the device becomes “embodied,” or viewed by the child as an integral part of himself.

For Blair, a sophomore, the project was a great chance to learn more about children and their development. “I learned a lot about how a mobility impairment could affect a child at such a young age,” she says.

But probably the most important lesson for all of the young participants was about the research process itself.

“My favorite part of the work was that there was always a surprise the next day,” Blair says. “This definitely taught me that things do not always go as you plan, so you have to be able to adjust. My work with the project taught me about the real world and how the real world is going to be. In school, our experiments are all planned out, and we know what to expect. But in this case, we did not know how the results were going to turn out, and that was the most exciting part about the work.”

Yang, a senior, concurs. “Through this experience, I learned about the true nature of research,” she says. “Sometimes, what was expected to happen didn't work out, or unexpected complications arose, but we always sought to look past these occasional frustrations and continue to work towards the end goal.”

The robotic mobility device that was used in the study is the product of the UD Mechanical Systems Laboratory. The interdisciplinary nature of the work, which involves mechanical engineering and physical therapy faculty, made an impression on the high school students.

“When I witnessed how an innovation of engineering could profoundly change someone's life through a collaborative effort between two very different disciplines,” Yang says, “I was inspired to pursue engineering in college.”

The four high school students are co-authors on a poster that will be presented at the International Conference on Infant Studies, to be held in Baltimore from March 10-14.

“These students did a lot of troubleshooting for us and contributed a great deal to the success of the project,” says Ragonesi. “It was wonderful to see them so passionate and involved. They still email me to see how the project is progressing.”

Galloway and Ragonesi hope that the collaboration with CSW will continue next summer and into the future. “It's so important to get high school students involved early in real-world science and engineering projects,” Galloway says. “It gives them a very different perspective from their classroom experience.”

“This project has so many facets,” he adds, “with students at all levels participating in the research, the ELC providing a living laboratory for us, and community involvement through the children and their parents. The more people we have involved, the better chance we have of getting this research into the hands of the people who can use it -- the kids.”

Article by Diane Kukich

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