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UMass Lowell Students Engineer Fun, Learning for the Handicapped

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Jerry Quinones, right, enjoys a NERF Interactive social game with O.T. Assistant Michelle Pelletier at New England Pediatric Care in Billerica. (Lowell Sun/Ryan McBride)

Lowell Sun
By Rick Sobey

BILLERICA -- When middle-school students come home from school every day, many of them will reach for their Nerf gun and have the time of their lives.

But for children with complex medical needs, including middle-schooler Jerry Quinones at Billerica's New England Pediatric Center (NEPC), they don't have the luxury of playing around with a Nerf gun.

However, thanks to UMass Lowell engineering students, Quinones and his classmates at NEPC's medically complex Day School can now experience the fun of an interactive Nerf game.

NEPC recently partnered with UMass Lowell, as engineering students carried out their capstone projects for the NEPC students with multiple disabilities.

The college students invented, designed and manufactured three separate medical devices for the children -- toys that have enhanced the children's learning experiences at NEPC, an 80-bed pediatric skilled nursing facility, affiliated with Tufts Medical Center and Boston's Floating Children's Hospital.

"UMass Lowell did extensive work thinking about our kids, and did an excellent job creating this cutting-edge technology that fits their needs," said Amy Gagnon, director of education at NEPC, a nonprofit. "They did incredible work for our students, and we would love to partner with them again.

"It's always rewarding to find different ways to make your students independent, and their smiles and levels of engagement are huge," she added.

"Our students are able to learn independently through these new devices, and fully participating in school is really what it's all about."

These are kids that, for the most part, cannot feed themselves, walk, dress themselves or even speak. The cognitive delay in their brains does not reach over 22 months old, even if they are 20 years old.

The UMass Lowell engineering students invented, designed and manufactured for them an adapted MP3 player, a sound/lap tray and the adapted Nerf interactive social game.

"These devices help give our children a chance to experience typical school activities, like video games with the Nerf game," said Ryan Whitney, the occupational therapist supervisor at NEPC.

"With the music player, they're able to play the music on their own by pushing a button, and the sound tray allows them to be more functional," Whitney added.

Gagnon stressed that adaptive technology is normally very costly, but this UMass Lowell partnership was free.

UMass Lowell seniors studying electrical and computer engineering participate in capstone projects to develop assistive technology for the community. A requirement of graduation, these projects give students a chance to apply their classroom knowledge by working with clients to design and build devices to their specifications.

John Palma, head of UMass Lowell's capstone projects for electrical and computer engineering, said his students also benefit by helping the children.

"Our students have been working with the community for more than 20 years to help solve problems using engineering," Palma said. "With these capstone projects, the students get a chance to develop their engineering skills and put into practice what they have learned by solving a real problem for a real person.

"There's no substitute for this real-world experience," he added. "We are thankful for our community partners for working with our students and providing these opportunities."