Empowering children with special needs

Students working on a motorized wheelchair

Nathaniel Goku '23, left, and Jonathan Fischman '25



Hands-on faculty-mentored undergraduate research is at the heart of a Union education. All year round, students work closely with their professors in classrooms, studios, archives and in the field - delving into topics that intrigue and challenge them. And for one day each May, the College suspends classes so that students can share their scholarly and creative interests and talents at the Steinmetz Symposium, a campus-wide celebration with peers, professors and families


For the past several years, Union engineering students have been working to design a replicable wheelchair for children that’s reasonably priced and easy to use by retrofitting the Power Wheels Wild Thing, a Fisher-Price battery-powered vehicle.

“Small kids without the ability to walk need a low-cost training power wheelchair. It’s not a simple thing to build in a way that can be easily duplicated,” said Cherrice Traver, the David Falk and Elynor Rudnick-Falk Professor of Computer Engineering.

Commercial power wheelchairs typically cost more than $10,000, making them too expensive for wide usage in physical therapy and rehabilitation programs. To address this problem, two students began designing the first version of a replicable chair as their senior capstone project in 2017. Since then, Traver, whose research interests are in applications of embedded systems, has continued working with students on structural enhancements.

The first group of students adapted the control interface and created and constructed flexible seating customizations. They later delivered a prototype to the Langan School at the Center for Disabilities in Albany, N.Y.

The next year, a student developed an improved version of the control system as his senior thesis and also created an easily replicable open-source product that would be accessible to a wide range of clients.

"Witnessing children using the wheelchair last summer made me appreciate all the work done by Professor Traer on this project, said Nathaniel Goku '23, a biomedical engineering major who is now carrying on the research. "I am very fortunate to be a part of it."

Jonathan Fischman '25, a computer engineering major, also finds it gratifying to be able to solve a problem that affects families every day.

"It's an incredible opportunity to work on a project that will make a real, positive impact on the lives of these kids," he said.