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UNF Students Partner With Duval High School To Make Smart Cane, Sensory Wall

University of North Florida engineering and physical therapy students have teamed up to create devices to help Atlantic Coast High School kids with disabilities.

The UNF students were putting the finishing touches on the devices Tuesday afternoon. The high school partnership is a new element to an existing “Adaptive Toy” project, where the college students modify toy cars for young kids with disabilities.

Related: For Kids With Disabilities, University of North Florida 'Adaptive Toys' Can Be Life Changers

UNF Engineering Professor Juan Aceros said partnering with Atlantic Coast means his students can help teens too. The Jacksonville high school has a large population of students with autism spectrum disorder and different disabilities.

Physical Therapy student Dallin Tampa has been helping develop a sensory wall -- a moveable wall adorned with different stations for autistic kids.

Credit Lindsey Kilbride / WJCT News
UNF physical therapy student Dallin Tampa demonstrates how the sensory wall works.

The students will control a moving light with a joystick through the maze. Tampa said the device will help the students recognize the connection between the light’s movement and their hand controlling it as well as help with decision making.

“And then once they get to the center of the maze it’ll light up really bright,” Tampa said.

On the other side of the wall there are cubbies with different textures inside them and a sound board in addition to other stations. Communication and Social Skills site coach at the high school, Emily Bradford, said the wall with increase students’ attention span, improve motor skills and communication.

And at another class station, UNF students were making final tweaks to a smart cane for visually impaired students to use. This year an Atlantic Coast student who recently went blind will have the opportunity to use it.

Credit Lindsey Kilbride / WJCT News
Atlantic Coast High visually impaired students will get to use a smart cane.

“One of the things I asked to go on the cane was some kind of chip so I can get data from it,” Bradford said.

She said the cane’s sensors will track if the student is using it correctly, by documenting the angle its being held at, the speed the student is walking and how quickly he’s swinging it.  

“That’ll actually help us steepen the slope of helping the student become a little bit more independent and it’ll also let us know ‘do we need to increase intervention with the student?,’”  Bradford said.

Engineering student Preston Loveday said tracking students’ walking speed was the biggest area of troubleshooting, since GPS wasn’t an option. Instead he’s paired the cane with an ankle monitor.

Credit Lindsey Kilbride / WJCT News
UNF students modify a toy car for disabled kids.

“We had to link it all together so we had to use Bluetooth to link the ankle monitor with the actual cane monitor because the cane holds the majority of the electronics and records all the data,” he said.

Aceros, Loveday’s professor, said not only is this project helping kids with disabilities, he sees it transforming his engineering students.

“They realize that the tools that they have, the math and the skills that they are acquiring can actually help society, help improve the quality of life of people with disabilities for example,” Aceros said.

The project will keep going since UNF recently received a $500,000 grant from the National Institutes of Health to continue it.

“Anybody who has a need that wants to contact us we’ll be happy to work with,” Aceros said. “We have a limited number of resources of course so we’ll try to look at the resources we have to be able to help.”

Atlantic Coast will get the devices Friday along with eight young kids who will receive modified toys.  

Lindsey Kilbride can be reached at, 904-358-6359 or on Twitter at @lindskilbride.

Below: UNF Physical Therapy student Dallin Tampa demonstrates how the sensory wall works.

.@UofNorthFlorida students made this sensory wall for autistic high school students. Check out the full story on @npratc @WJCTJax — Lindsey Kilbride (@lindskilbride) November 30, 2017

Lindsey Kilbride was WJCT's special projects producer until Aug. 28, 2020. She reported, hosted and produced podcasts like Odd Ball, for which she was honored with a statewide award from the Associated Press, as well as What It's Like. She also produced VOIDCAST, hosted by Void magazine's Matt Shaw, and the ADAPT podcast, hosted by WJCT's Brendan Rivers.