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Iowa BIG students and UnityPoint work to solve puzzle
Work on kids’ therapy tool builds leadership and career skills
CEDAR RAPIDS — An occupational therapy puzzle for children is being improved by two students in the Iowa BIG program in partnership with UnityPoint Health, an effort that could generate more interest in careers in the health care industry.
The students — Lexi Harrison and Lucee Howe, both juniors at Prairie High School — are working in UnityPoint Health’s Generate Lab at St. Luke’s Hospital to reverse-engineer the toy to create something more durable.
“It’s a cool experience being able to help people in the medical field while we’re still in high school,” Howe said. “It’s a lot of pressure, but a good pressure you want to feel.”
The Iowa BIG program challenges high school students to team up with businesses to work on projects. This gives its students the ability to learn and use real-world skills such as leadership, accountability and teamwork on projects about which they are passionate, while earning high school credit.
The occupational therapy toy is a standard Melissa & Doug-brand puzzle — puzzles that typically are made with wood and have pegs to easily remove and replace the pieces — with voice recording capability. If the puzzle includes a picture of a cow, for example, it can be programmed to “moo” every time the cow is moved. The puzzle also can be programmed to play songs such as “Old MacDonald Had A Farm.”
Emily Robins, senior occupational therapist at UnityPoint Health’s Witwer Children’s Therapy, said she uses the toy for children with delayed fine motor skills of their fingers and hands, or to improve language skills.
“Kids can work on imitating sounds and pairing it with objects,” Robins said. “You can’t have a conversation with a 2-year-old on why they should do their exercises. You have to find ways to motivate them.”
The current devices — which the students are studying to create new ones — are over a decade old and a few of them are broken. Robins said she can’t wait for the new product to be completed so some of her patients can benefit from it.
Another important part of the puzzle is that it can be disinfected between uses to prevent the spread of infections, as the toy will be used by more than one patient.
The toy will be manufactured with 3D printers at the Generate Lab and reproduced as needed. The students are working on creating the prototype and coding — or programming — the puzzle, so it will play the desired sounds.
This process is “very tedious” Harrison said. A code is a set of instructions that tells the technology what action to take. Small mistakes — like a space or period in the wrong spot — will make the code ineffective.
The students knew very little about coding before starting the project, but are learning through Arduino, a programming software easy to use for both beginners and professionals.
The new device will be “more customizable” for each patient and easier for therapists to use, said Rose Hedges, nursing research and innovation coordinator with UnityPoint Health.
The students not only are learning how to code and use a 3D printer, but are learning about the health care industry, how to give a professional presentation and even how to dress professionally and send an email, Hedges said.
Howe and Harrison both are interested in careers in the health care industry some day. Howe, who has undergone a couple surgeries in the last year, said she wants to help people in the way that she has been helped. They also both see themselves choosing to potentially live in Eastern Iowa after college.
“Someday down the line, maybe my kid or my friends’ kid has to go through physical therapy and they use this toy that I made. Or if I go in to the health care profession, I’m using this toy I built to help another child,” Harrison said.
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