Aacen Huck, 2, sits in the driver's seat of his new red car with a huge smile on his face as University of Mary physical therapy and engineering students measure padding on both sides of him.
The six graduate students, who are partnering with engineering students and faculty, are modifying the Lightning McQueen toy car over the next two weeks to allow Aacen, who is unable to walk, to maneuver while learning some skills along the way.
Most children start moving between 6 and 7 months, whether if be through rolling and crawling, and, at age 1, they're walking, said Heather Lundeen, assistant professor in the University of Mary's Department of Physical Therapy. Children who can't move on their own due to a disability are missing important developmental milestones.
"We started to see through research that they were really missing out on socialization, on cognitive building through exploration, because that’s how we learn as we interact through our environment," Lundeen said. "Once kids start moving, they get the world opened to them."
Aacen has a genetic mutation that affects his muscles and ability to eat. His dad, Aaron Huck, said the disorder was something that came months after he was born, when Aacen wasn't hitting certain goals. He has hypertonia, or muscle weakness, and has had a few surgeries already, including one on his eye.
Four times a week, Aacen goes to physical, occupational, speech and feeding therapies. Unable to walk, Aacen gets around by rolling and pulling himself.
"He gets where he wants to go," said Huck, with a laugh.
The car is "awesome," according to Huck, adding that Aacen's older sister, Ayla, 6, will be happy to know her little brother is getting his own car.
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"She got one of those little cars when she was his age, so, I said, 'This is huge,'" Huck said. "(Ayla) always feels like Aacen should have everything she has, and, if he doesn't get it, she feels like he's being treating unfairly."
The University of Mary students raised $1,900 to purchase and adapt three toy cars, one for Aacen, one for another child and one therapists and teachers at the Bismarck Early Childhood Education Program can offer to kids. The students will use PVC pipes, pool noodles and kickboards to provide adequate seating support for the children.
Also, engineering students will take out the steering wheels and install large switches the children can press to make the cars move forward.
"It's very basic modifications to the cars, so I think the engineering students will be able to do more," said Rodrigo Aparecido, an engineering instructor, adding that students may install a joystick in the BECEP car for the children.
"We thought (the project) would be very good for the community," Aparecido said. "And it will also be good for the engineering students, because it's a very hands-on project."
The physical therapy students are doing the project through a course called Service Oriented Learning Experience. Lundeen said they hope to make it an annual project.
"Just the fact that (the children) can, by themselves, move themselves in some capacity ... that's our goal," Lundeen said.