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AEP Employees Work With Students in Adaptive Toy Project

by on February 21, 2017
AEP's John Garlitz (left) and a student partner figure out how to take apart a talking dinosaur toy.

AEP’s John Garlitz (left) and a student partner figure out how to take apart a talking dinosaur toy.

National Engineers Week is Feb. 19 – 25. This year, AEP is looking not just at our own engineers, but at what our engineers are doing to help develop the next generation of engineers. This story also shows how AEP employees and students are helping children with special needs. 

The sounds of conversation and laughter at Smith Laboratory at The Ohio State University mingled with buzzing, ringing, clanging, and the voice of the furry red Sesame Street character Elmo repeating phrases and singing songs.

On one wall in the crowded room, above the wood-and-steel work tables, stood rows of shelves filled with colorful boxes and packages of toys.

This was no ordinary college-level engineering workshop, but rather a very special one.

AEP employees recently worked with Ohio State students to get hands-on learning about the OSU College of Engineering’s Toy Adaptation Program (TAP).

Employees involved were Jeff Aylor, IT software developer lead; Pat Collins, software developer senior, IT; Mike Crichton, principal engineer, Quality Assurance Services, Generation; Dennis DeVendra, manager, IT; John Garlitz, engineer, Turbine/Generator & Piping Systems, Generation; Becky Naugle, coordinator associate, East Transmission Planning; and Joshua Sebourn, manager, IT. Justin Bonifield, project coordinator with APEX for Transmission Grid Development, also participated.

Adapting toys is the process of changing them to allow people with special needs to use and play with them. The activity involves adding switches, buttons or other devices that allow the toy to be more fully and easily used.

TAP combines basic engineering work, community service and partnerships, mentoring future engineers, and delivering on a need for children with disabilities.

“Adaptive toys are used in occupational therapy, and for those with special needs to help them learn independent play, and cause and effect,” said DeVendra, co-chair of the ADAPT Employee Resource Group. “It’s a way to make toys more accessible for people to use them.”

Workshop participants carefully disassemble toys, rewire and solder wiring attached to new switches, test the toys, then carefully reassemble them and put them back in their original packaging to look brand new.

It sounds easy, but getting these toys to talk, spin, light up and move around successfully with their adaptations in about two hours takes careful planning, attention to detail and let’s-put-our-heads-together teamwork.

“It involves reverse engineering and a focus on detail,” said Sebourn, co-chair of ADAPT ERG.  “You have to figure out how to take the toy apart logically, plan the location of the adaptive piece so the toy will still fit together, make sure it works, reassemble it, and make sure it looks like it’s brand new.”

The toys in the afternoon’s project included Let’s Imagine Elmo, Talking 123 Cookie Monster, Bows-A-Glow Minnie, Shake and Sounds Learning Pup, Fubbles Bump and Bubbles Robot, Walkin’ & Talkin’ Arlo (a fuzzy green dinosaur), and Spin & Learn Color Flashlight.

“We can tear apart and reassemble a turbine generator, but this flashlight toy is kicking our butts – we can’t figure out how to get it apart,” Crichton said jokingly. “I did this last year and found it was extremely rewarding, so I decided to try to set up a time when other AEP employees could get involved.”

Liz Riter, co-director of TAP, advises a scholars program at the College of Engineering. “We just put the word out about toy workshops and people show up to volunteer. There’s no regular membership, and it’s not a course with academic credits. We have a mix of scholars, honors students, women in engineering, and other students,” she said. The program has been in place at the college since 2015.

TAP’s toys are donated to a toy adoption program at OSU’s Nisonger Center for children with developmental disabilities, and to Katelyn’s Kloset, a toy-lending library in Hilliard associated with Easter Seals. TAP also works with Heinzerling Foundation, which provides services to people with Alzheimer’s disease, Nationwide Children’s Hospital and with other central Ohio businesses and organizations.

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