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WVU-sponsored youth special needs program to benefit from technology-based partnership

West Virginia University professor’s partnership with a high school robotics team has led to the development of a robot that will enable kids with special needs to kick a soccer ball.

Andrea Taliaferro, associate professor, directs the College of Physical Activity and Sport SciencesFriday Morning Adapted Physical Education Program, a collaborative partnership between WVU and Monongalia County Schools. The clinic provides physical education and activity programing for children with special needs. 

During the past two years, Taliaferro has worked with students from a New Jersey high school robotics team, For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology Robotics Team 1676, the Pascack Pi-oneers, who built a device for use in the Friday Morning APE Program.

The team, under the direction of head coach Kevin Killian, has designed the robot to enable learners who are non-ambulatory to kick a soccer ball. The educational goal of the partnership is to develop a new assistive technology resource for use in the clinical setting. The robotics team learned about constraints and how they influence the design process.

“I read a newspaper article about the Pascack Pi-oneers team and a competition robot they had built. I thought of how cool it would be if this robot could be modified for use as an assistive technology in our APE program,” Taliaferro said. She contacted Pascack Hills High School, which happens to be her alma mater, to ask for their help to introduce athletic participation to students in Adapted Physical Education. The team jumped at the chance.

“It fits so well with what we do,” Killian said. “The team members are obviously technology aficionados. We subscribe to the goals set out by FIRST robotics to inspire others toward science and technology. We want more students to pursue these kinds of careers because of the world-changing effects technology can have. Our robot, which will assist in Adapted Physical Education, is accomplishing this in our own small way,” he added.

According to Killian, the Pascack Pi-oneers have traditionally focused on outreach projects. “We particularly search for opportunities where we can leverage student expertise in technology to help others. We decided long ago that we wanted to focus on projects that help children,” Killian explained.

The group wanted to help kids experience athletic competition. “Our goal was to create a robot that would give a differently-abled child the thrill of scoring a soccer goal. We wanted to make a machine that was fun and easy to play with, attractive to look at and easy to maintain,” Killian said.

Now that the design process is nearing completion, Taliaferro has invited the coaches, mentors, and students from the team to visit campus to unveil the robot and introduce its use in the clinic. The team is looking forward to their visit to Morgantown.

“Most of all, the students want to see the faces of the children who will be using the robot during the Adaptive Physical Education class. We are also excited to see West Virginia University and get to know better the members of Mountaineer Area RoboticS, Morgantown’s FIRST Robotics team,” Killian said.

The New Jersey team will arrive in Morgantown Thursday (Oct. 5) and connect with the Morgantown-based Mountaineer Area Robotics team to complete final changes on the robot.

On Friday, the group will present the robot at the Friday Morning Clinic, tour the Benjamin M. Statler College of Engineering and Mineral Resources and Morgantown campus. That same evening, the group will attend the WVU Women’s Soccer game as they take on Oklahoma State University, where they will be recognized at half time. The students and teachers will depart Saturday morning.

“We thought we were going to come to the University, deliver our robot and hopefully see it in action. We didn’t dream of having the school make such a big deal about what we’ve done. We feel somewhat humbled by the whole thing,” Killian said.

“We have participants in our APE program who don’t have the ability to kick a soccer ball on their own. The efforts of the Pascack Pioneers will enable these participants to use assistive technology to engage in physical activity with their peers,” Taliaferro added.

Killian acknowledges the community support the team received in building the robot.

“In addition to Professor Taliaferro and WVU, several sponsors donated materials for the robot, mostly for the fiberglass outer shell. These companies include Gougeon Brothers Inc., BGF Industries, Axson Technologies, ChemTrend L.P., Composites One LLC, Baltek Inc. – Lantor. Additionally, Jeff Reber of Composites One donated a good deal of time to help us with the forming of the shell,” Killian added.

“Finally, we are partnering with FIRST Robotics Team 2614, Mountaineer Area RoboticS, who will provide local support for repairs and maintenance after we deliver the robot,” he said.

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