For many young people, receiving that first driver’s license is a rite of passage. It means the freedom to go where they want, when they want. Do you remember how excited you were to get yours? Multiply that feeling by 40 or 50 and you’ll begin to understand how Jack Carroll felt when he climbed aboard his custom, child-sized John Deere tractor.
Jack Carroll is four years old and like most four-year-olds he is inexhaustibly curious about the world around him. In one way, though, he is not like most four-year-olds.
“Jack was born about 4 months early — he was just 1 pound, 12 ounces — which led to a brain bleed, which caused a form of cerebral palsy and some other health challenges,” said his mother, Danielle Carroll.
Although Jack has a walker, his cerebral palsy makes it very difficult for him to get around. At least it did until recently.
A therapist at the charter school Jack attends near his home in Pensacola, Florida, nominated him for the ArgoTots program.
Pensacola’s University of West Florida, known locally as UWF, launched the ArgoTots program last year to help young children with physical disabilities move around independently by providing modified vehicles.
Number one on the list of children to help: Jack Carroll.
“When Jack’s principal called to tell me, it was a surprise,” Danielle said. “I didn’t know about the program, so I had to do some research to find out more. But I know mobility is really important for children’s development because it lets them explore.”
She recalled looking for ideas on what kind of child’s car would work. “Jack is so tall he can’t really fit in the small cars,” she said. “A friend at work has a child who has a John Deere tractor, so that seemed like a good idea. Everybody knows John Deere.”
Peg Perego is an Italian company John Deere authorizes to manufacture toy tractors and related equipment. UWF’s ArgoTots program selected Peg Perego’s John Deere Ground Force Tractor for the project.
Enter the Engineers
UWF created a program to get engineering students involved in team projects that the university sponsors. Before they can graduate, students must dedicate six course hours to a project of their choice. One of those projects was modifying a child’s car.
“That project stood out to me,” Isaac Brunet said. Brunet is studying mechanical engineering at UWF and plans to pursue a graduate degree in engineering. “In my classes, I was getting kind of discouraged because everything was very robust mechanical work, but it felt kind of lifeless. With that project, I could apply my engineering skills to something that would make a difference in a child’s life. That’s really what drew me to this project team.”
Like Brunet, team member Cody Sewell is a senior in the mechanical engineering program and was attracted to the child car modification project for its unusual focus.
“The ArgoTots project actually looked the best because it didn’t deal with the typical engineering concepts; it was more about giving back,” said Sewell, who loves designing and hopes one day to apply his talents at the Walt Disney Company.
“I just love the whole story behind the project,” Sewell said. “I have some family friends with special needs, so that really impacted my decision. I thought it’d be amazing to help a child with those issues be able to enjoy his life a little bit more.”
Brunet, Sewell, and four other mechanical engineering teammates — Fred Anderson, Selena Beasley, Phillip Mitchell, and Shane Smith — began laying out plans in fall 2018.
“We looked at Jack and asked, ‘What are his needs?’” Brunet said. “Most of his strength is in the right side of his body, so we wanted to make one-handed operation of the vehicle as easy as possible.”
The team’s observations led to such modifications as making a larger steering wheel, which would require less force to steer with one hand; installing a safety harness that would not only prevent Jack from being thrown off the tractor, but also help him save his strength by holding him upright; adding a headrest for support; and creating a remote “kill” switch that would allow Jack’s parents to stop the battery-powered tractor immediately if they saw Jack heading toward trouble.
Brunet and Sewell both were heavily involved in testing the tractor materials to see how they would perform in normal conditions and under stress.
“The most difficult part was the frame for the harness,” said Brunet. “We had to test how much pressure the plastics on the machine could take before they would ‘fail.’ Then we conceived different scenarios that were very unlikely to happen in real life.
“For example, what would happen if a child who weighed up to 85 pounds were suspended upside down in the air and secured by nothing but the harness, which was being held in place by just one of the three points where it connects to the tractor frame?” Brunet added, “We built in a safety factor of up to five for those scenarios to ensure the tractor would be safe for Jack.”
But that wasn’t the team’s biggest challenge.
Most laws and regulations — often in the form of consumer protections — are necessary, but to a team of engineers focused on the finish line, they can seem like a nuisance.
“Legal and regulatory compliance was the toughest part of this project,” Sewell said.
The team had to take a seven-hour training course on research ethics and related topics as well as meet with the university’s institutional review board and its legal staff. The objective was to ensure the team wasn’t violating warranties and was following all the pertinent rules, safety requirements, and federal laws.
“Honestly,” Sewell recalled, “the legal and regulatory part took up the majority of the time we spent on this project.”
Some Unexpected Beneficiaries
“I call us the ‘Dream Team’ because everything seemed to work perfectly,” Sewell said. “I think the team grew together because nowadays we see each other and we’re always talking about the project and how it was really not just the engineering, but also the social aspect.
“The project made me realize I’m actually doing something good, and I can take pride in my work.”
Brunet feels the same way.
“The project definitely made me more optimistic about my major,” he said. “It’s easy to get into the mindset that all an engineer does is make buildings and work with steel, and it’s very lifeless. But this project reminded me that I can use these skills to help others. It’s really one of the coolest things I think I could do with my education.”
Springing the Surprise
In mid-July, Danielle Carroll and Jack’s father Mike Carroll brought Jack to UWF, where the team unveiled the modified John Deere tractor.
“I think we were all pretty excited,” Sewell recalled. “I think that day was what we were all waiting for. I know I was. It was just a great outcome.”
Did Jack like it?
“Oh, yeah!” recalled Sewell. “Jack was all smiles that day.”
Brunet added, “I have a job in lawn maintenance and I actually drive a John Deere lawn mower almost every day, so it was kind of funny watching Jack ride around on his tractor.”
The tractor has plastic wheels, so it can be ridden outside. But it can also be ridden inside, and Jack rode it up and down the hall in the UWF engineering department.
“I would let him ride it inside our house if he wants to,” Danielle Carroll said. That would require a special kind of child-proofing, but Danielle’s willing.
“Jack has a great personality — he’s so happy-go-lucky, funny, and happy — and this tractor will be another great thing for him to explore and to explore on,” she said.
“He definitely wants to be more independent, and this will help him get to where he wants to go. If he’s in the park, kids come up and want to play with him. Even at school, the other kids come up to him and are so excited — ‘Jack’s here! Jack’s here!’ They just like being around him.”
And with his newly modified John Deere tractor, Jack is likely to be around just about everywhere you’d expect a four-year-old to be.