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UNG, Georgia Tech students join forces to help kids with disabilities
Physical therapy, engineering scholars combine disciplines to create devices
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Isaac Morgan, center, almost 3, is the focus of attention for Georgia Tech engineering and University of North Georgia physical therapy students. The students are helping create technology for youngsters with disabilities. Giulia Barbareschi, an exchange student at Georgia Tech from the College of London, talks about plans for Isaac’s new tricycle. Listening are, clockwise from lower left, Matthew Chandler, physical therapy; Oliver Feng, engineering; Hillary Ramos, physical therapy; Josh Morgan, Isaac’s dad; and Sara Morgan, his mom. The Morgan family lives in Clermont. - photo by RON BRIDGEMAN

Isaac Morgan lies in the middle of the therapy table, smiling and looking around him. His parents and students from the University of North Georgia and Georgia Tech talk around him.

It is part of the “cREATe” project, a collaboration between UNG physical therapy graduate students and Georgia Tech engineering students to make devices that would help three youngsters with disabilities. The acronym stands for “creating rehab engineering and assistive technology experiences.”

The two groups — 12 students in physical therapy and nine in engineering — worked together for a week to develop plans for devices or technology to make devices work more conveniently for the youngsters.

Alison Alhadeff, coordinator for UNG in the program, said the engineering students have three weeks to put together their device. She noted PT students “typically are not involved in the design” of devices.

She said she did her undergraduate work and physical therapy training at Georgia Tech.

“I loved the idea of bring those two disciplines together,” she said.

Steve Sprigle, Georgia Tech professor in mechanical engineering and industrial design and also a licensed physical therapist, said his students are not skilled in dealing with “nonverbal” clients, as the youngsters are.

The students talk among themselves and with parents to come up with the ideas, he said. The students are “trying to engage these families to solve a problem,” he said.

Toward the end of the week, ideas are “converging” toward plans, Sprigle said, “otherwise they’d never get anything done.”

This is the program’s second year, which Sprigle said would continue in 2017. It is a collaboration among UNG, Georgia Tech and VentureWell, which has provided a grant to cover costs.

Sprigle said he has known Teresa Conner-Kerr, dean of UNG’s College of Health Sciences & Professions, for years. When she became dean, he said, he suggested they should look for ways “to do something together, how to get our students in the same room.”

He also pointed out that another twist to the project this year includes an exchange student through the College of London, who is from Italy. Giulia Barbareschi is at Georgia Tech studying the processes followed for developing the technology.

In 2015, the students worked with two adults and one child. This year all three are children.

Sprigle said he was “stunned” to learn the devices created last year are still in use.

Sara Morgan, Isaac’s mom, said they had the device with them. It is a small wagon with buttons Isaac can push for different actions. She noted the seats also can be changed.

It has been used outside to play with his sister, Ansley, who is almost 7.

Sara and Josh Morgan, physical therapy students and engineering students talked about how best to add technology to a tricycle to encourage Isaac to pedal.

“You’re going to have the coolest bike in the neighborhood,” Matthew Chandler, a PT student, told Isaac.

The students were discussing “rewards” such as blowing bubbles or music playing when Isaac pedals the bike.

Sara said Isaac has DiGeorge Syndrome, which includes low muscle tone so exercise is important, and a neurological condition which delays the transmission of information from and to his brain. She was enthusiastic about the cREATe project.

“It’s a great program,” she declared.

The family learned about the project through Shannon Smith, a physical therapist for Isaac at Kidworks. Smith knows Alhadeff, she said.

The other projects for the students include a walker that can be connected to a stroller, which would allow the mother to know both her children were safe and then it could be disconnected for independence for the child; and technology that can help a mother get her daughter out of a car seat without twisting her back — more ergonomically — since her daughter cannot help by holding on to her mom.