UM-Flint occupational therapy, technology students make a difference for Flint child

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UM-Flint students Shalini Augenstein (left), Marwa Hammami, professor Donna Case and student Elizabeth Mansfield pose with Flint's Kaden Stevenson, who they recently adapted a power wheels car for
UM-Flint students Shalini Augenstein (far left) and Marwa Hammami (left), assistant professor Donna Case (center) and student Elizabeth Mansfield (right) were part of a group that adapted a Power Wheels car for Flint child Kaden Stevenson (front).

Kaden Stevenson of Flint looked like any other kid having a great day when he recently drove a Spider-Man Power Wheels car in front of the William S. White Building at the University of Michigan-Flint.

But the occasion was a momentous one for the 7-year-old boy, his family and several UM-Flint students. Kaden, who lost both legs after an illness, was operating the car with only his hands thanks to the creativity and teamwork of the gathered students.

His first ride in the adapted car was captured by Flint's ABC12 News. 

Two occupational therapy students and five students from the College of Innovation & Technology's Innovators & Makers Club worked together for a month to adapt the car and move the accelerator pedal, volunteering more than 50 hours of their time. It was a meaningful experience for everyone involved.

"This is what the field of occupational therapy is all about," said Elizabeth Mansfield, an OT doctoral student from Boyne Falls. "We gave Kaden a way to play independently and just be a kid again despite everything he has been through. He can drive this car like any kid would. He just drives it with his hands instead of his feet. It shows how impactful the field can be."

Christopher Williams, Matt Roome, Elizabeth Mansfield, Shalini Augenstein and assistant professor Thiago Ferreira work on the car.
Christopher Williams (left), Matt Roome, Elizabeth Mansfield, Shalini Augenstein and assistant professor Thiago Ferreira work on the car.

Mansfield, who worked on a similar project while she was an undergraduate student, learned that Kaden's mom, Michele, was looking for someone to adapt the car. She brought the idea to Donna Case, assistant professor of occupational therapy, and her classmate Shalini Augenstein, and the project quickly got on the road.

Case worked with Shirl Donaldson, assistant professor of digital manufacturing technology, to create an interdisciplinary team. Donaldson saw the potential for a unique learning opportunity and recruited the Innovator & Makers Club, which was founded earlier this year and is "a community of students on a journey of learning problem-solving skills through making hands-on projects."

Five students in the club – Haneen Ataya, Nyrelle Boles-Lee, Marwa Hammami, Matt Roome and Christopher Williams – volunteered to join Mansfield and Augenstein. 

Case, Donaldson and Thiago Ferreira, club advisor and assistant professor of information technology informatics, oversaw the project. They said it was not just an exercise in giving back but also taught the students skills that are hard to teach in a classroom.

"It was a joy-filled process," Case said. "When you are working on a project for a real person, it is so much more meaningful. It was wonderful to see them learning from each other."

The students managed the project from beginning to end, scheduling meetings, ordering supplies, meeting with Kaden to learn about his needs, and rewiring and rebuilding the car. 

Christopher Williams, Matt Roome and assistant professor Thiago Ferreira work on the Power Wheels.
Christopher Williams (left), Matt Roome (center) and assistant professor Thiago Ferreira (right) work on the Power Wheels.

"We are trying to create a culture of proposing real solutions for real-world problems," Ferreira said. "This project taught so many important skills, including communication and teamwork. If you don't know how to ask the right question, you can't solve a problem. They also learned how to manage time, costs and resources."

Several students were present when Kaden picked up the car and could see his joy as he drove it for the first time. 

"I am glad that we could make a difference for Kaden," said Roome, a digital manufacturing major from Fenton. "Any breakthrough in technology requires different disciplines coming together. We want to use technology to improve people's lives."

After Kaden enjoys the car this summer, the group plans to make additional improvements this fall, including installing a new battery that will alert him when it is running low so that he doesn't find himself stranded.

They are also brainstorming other community-based projects the interdisciplinary team can take on together.

"Our students want to see the impact they make in the world," Donaldson said. "We are living our mission. What our students are learning can really make a difference in people's lives. We can share talent and resources and impact the community."

Current UM-Flint students interested in joining the Innovators & Makers Club can email the club at [email protected]

Martha Pennington is the communications specialist for the College of Health Sciences. She can be reached at [email protected].