Students make little cars for children in need

By Elizabeth Stapleton

What happens when a biology professor and an education professor decide to build a car?

Earlier this year, fueled by a passion for building low cost alternatives to power -wheelchairs for young children with disabilities, professors Mary Beth Doyle and Donna Bozzone found themselves learning and practicing how to make adaptations on child sized cars.

The project began in June when the two professors were approached by a physical therapist on behalf of a local family who had requested a car for their five-year-old daughter Katie.

PHOTO COURTESY MARK TARNACKI. Mary Beth Doyle, second from right, instructs her students in the MakerSpace located in Dion Student Center.

Katie has muscular dystrophy and walking down to the playground to participate in recess was too much for her body. Crafting a battery-powered car to fit Katie’s size and condition has made the process much easier for Katie to enjoy recess with her fellow classmates.

Doyle and Bozzone recruited students from their classes who were interested in the project. Doyle explained that it allowed the students to use their hands and gave them an opportunity to do things creatively without worry of failure.

“We are not electricians by any means” said Annie Ledue, ’21, “but we were just kind of handed screw drivers.”

Since the project was all voluntary, both Doyle and Bozzone held no expectation that the students would have expert experience in robotics. Students had to learn the basic conceptual skills on an older car before they were allowed to create a car that a child could use.

“From a teaching standpoint, it was a perfect lesson to do something and not always have it go smoothly, and that’s more than okay” Bozzone said.

It took all of July and most of August this past summer to get the car into rideable condition. They had to make sure the car would fit Katie’s needs.

Katie wears foot braces, known as ankle foot orthosis, which prevents her foot from being able to reach the pedals. Because of this, the class rewired the acceleration to the steering wheel, making it a feather-touch switch and more easily accessible.

The car’s original plastic wheels created too much noise on the indoor floors, so it was not expected for Katie to use the car inside the school.

PHOTO COURTESY MARK TARNACKI. Students teach St. Michael’s trustee Joseph Garrity, right, on how to make a car.

“One of the best parts is the students also get to see us not having an answer right away,” Doyle said.
The class tried a couple of things, she said, but they finally went to a bike shop and picked up old tires to wrap around the plastic wheels. The car was completed in September.

Through their involvement on this car, students learned how to use the power tools, how electrical systems work and ways to interrupt those systems, soldering, physical modifications, creative problem solving, and collaboration.

The outcome resulted in major success considering they already have another car for a child who qualifies in the making.

“It’s so satisfying to see, and it broadens your worldview,” Sarah Hunzeker, ’21, said. “It makes you further appreciate what you have because these kids don’t have the same means to get around.”

“One of the things I love the most about St. Mikes is our tradition of service,” Bozzone said. “It’s baked into the college… this project fulfills a totally different avenue to feed that impulse.”

According to Doyle, the goal is to be able to help any “little one” in Vermont by having three brand new cars being worked on at any-given-time per semester. The group worked on the cars on site in the Makerspace but they anticipate outgrowing the area and are hoping to find additional space. Pursuing this line of service is something Doyle and Bozzone want to keep expanding and empowering students to join in on continuing to make huge impacts on children who need it.

Their goals include – building a center equipped with appropriate tools, modification materials, and cars, the designing of an inter-disciplinary curriculum to support Saint Michael’s students in various majors, and expand their tradition of community engaged learning into a new arena.
“We really hope to get something so established and functional that it continues long after we’re gone,” Bozzone said.