An interdisciplinary team of professors and students at Western Michigan University has designed a robotic device to help children develop crucial handwriting skills.
The design team is composed of professors and students from the College of Health and Human Services and College of Engineering and Applied Sciences. They have been studying the uses of a robotic arm joined with a computer, known as a robotic haptic interface, to improve eye-hand coordination and handwriting skills in children.
The arm of the robotic device is held and then moved to follow trajectories on a screen. The device offers resistance and simulates the effort required to, for example, write with a pencil.
"The haptic capability of the robotic device allows the user to 'feel' or touch the virtual environment displayed in the computer," says team member Dr. Norali Pernalete, assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering. "The idea behind using the sense of touch is that users with various forms of motor disabilities could still have this sense intact. In the case of eye-hand coordination, we employ the sense of touch because the individual does not possess a well-developed visual feedback to control his or her movements."
In one exercise, the subject uses the robotic arm to follow the trajectory--often a connected, loopy or squiggly line--designed by the occupational therapists to challenge perceptual motor and fine motor development, and the computer charts the accuracy of the subject's work. Through repeated testing, subjects improve their eye-hand coordination and handwriting.
Fellow team member Sandra Edwards, professor of occupational therapy, says that eye-hand coordination is essential to a child's development because it is important to so many daily activities, such as academic work, which includes handwriting, and even putting on clothing. According to Edwards, the researchers are discovering the computer is enhancing children's attention spans, and, because of the success of handwriting and other tasks, it also is enhancing their self-esteem.
In addition to Pernalete and Edwards, the interdisciplinary team includes occupational therapy graduate student Erin McCann and electrical and computer engineering doctoral student Ramakrishna Gottipati.
The team recently published its findings in the International Journal on Human Friendly Welfare Robotics and made a presentation on the subject in April at the International Conference on Robotics and Automation in New Orleans.
The research project has been great for the two graduate students, Edwards says.
"They have an enriched research experience from working on an interdisciplinary team," Edwards says. "It is much more complex to work on this kind of research team because members have to understand and learn professional differences, such as vocabulary, goals, equipment and resources."
Despite the challenges, the students have received a great benefit by being published so early in their careers, Edwards says. That will enhance their employability and give them a jump on their long-term research.
Gottipati says it's been a pleasure working with the team and that he's enjoyed using his expertise with robotics while learning how occupational therapists work. He adds that he's enjoyed working with the team's subject, a 7-year-old boy. "It's fun to work with a 7-year-old kid, explaining to him about the robot and having him complete the tasks. This kind of work was not part of my professional activity until I met Professor Edwards."
Edwards and Gottipati met when he approached her to get her input on a conference paper on which he and Pernalete were working. Afterward, they teamed up, along with McCann, to work on their current project. Pernalete had previously done research on the subject with a team at the University of South Florida in a nuclear cleanup teleoperation.
The robotic haptic interface project was one of several student-faculty collaborative research projects that took place in WMU's Department of Occupational Therapy this year. Other projects focused on topics with titles ranging from "Resiliency Among Traumatized Children" and "Gateway to Wellness" to "Occupational Therapy in Hospice," "Assessment and Therapy Issues in Upper Extremity Rehabilitation," and "Effectiveness of Handwriting Without Tears."