Four-year-old Emma Basting, paralyzed from the chest down, is zipping around her house -- and terrorizing her little brother -- in a motorized wheelchair, courtesy of a student robotics team from Northwood and Hatton, N.D., schools.

Since the age of 2, because of a cancerous tumor that compressed her spine, Emma, the daughter of Brandi and Aaron Basting of rural Thompson, N.D., has been paralyzed. She was an inpatient for 16 months at a Minnesota hospital and has undergone many surgeries and other procedures.

Emma recently received a customized wheelchair, constructed especially for her by seven members of the Thunder Robotics Team 876.

The wheelchair gives her daughter much more freedom of movement, according to Brandi Basting.

“Emma loves it. She absolutely loves it," she said.

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Since the wheelchair is run by a single joystick, it’s much easier on Emma’s body, said Basting, adding that, in her manual wheelchair, “her arms and shoulders wear out. She can only be in it for one or two hours.”

Emma can use the new wheelchair indoors and outside -- the latter is especially welcome, Basting said.

The family’s rural farmhouse is surrounded by grass and gravel but, with her old wheelchair, that “was not safe for her -- any little divot or hole can tip her wheelchair over.”

"(With the new wheelchair, Emma) will be able to go anywhere,” Basting said. “When it’s nicer out, she’ll be able to cruise around the yard.”

Project leader

A former robotics team member, Corey Hagen, 24, of Northwood, took the lead on this project after a connection was made with the Basting family through Facebook.

Brandi Basting had seen a customized wheelchair online that was made by a Minnesota robotics team and wondered if the same might be possible for her daughter.

A mutual acquaintance, a neighbor, recommended Hagen on a Facebook post, he remembered.

After Hagen talked with Basting about the wheelchair idea: “I brought it to the rest of my mentors to see if they wanted to take on the project or not."

The team’s lead mentor is Mike Vogelwede, a long-time science teacher at Northwood High School.

Hagen, a 2013 graduate of Northwood High School, had been active with the robotics team for the final five years of his schooling.

A 2018 UND graduate, with a degree in mechanical engineering, Hagen worked in the oil fields of western North Dakota during summers in high school and college and returned regularly to mentor the Hatton-Northwood schools’ robotics team.

Of the team’s 20 members, seven worked on Emma’s wheelchair: Ava Chandler, Dylan Enger, Elias Redding, Jediah Redding, William Carlisle, Chris Ladue and Myelle Redding.

“We bought a ‘Wild Thing’ kit toy from Fisher Price,” Hagen said. “It is beefed up for bigger kids.”

The team also purchased a 3-in-1 car seat with a five-point harness to provide better security, Hagen said.

Emma’s wheelchair needed to meet her specific needs. The robotics team made some changes to make a chair suitable for “chest-down versus waist-down” paralysis, “so we had to focus a lot more on the chair,” he said.

“When she’s sitting in it, it kind of wraps around her; she’s cinched up in it. She stays centered so she doesn’t move around too much, because she’s got to stay pretty much straight.”

Emma operates all movements of the chair with a single, small joystick, “so she has one arm free for holding things and doing things,” he said.

Donors and designers

Hagen estimates the project took about four nights of work, or about 20 hours, for the students to complete.

He also rounded up donations from businesses and individuals -- including the Ryan Hagen family, Ryan Cabral and L&K Electric -- to bring it to fruition.

Another robotics team, Rogue Robotics Team 2987 in Farmington, Minn., also helped. That team had built a customized wheelchair for a local 2-year-old with a genetic condition that delays his physical and cognitive development.

“That was the first (customized wheelchair) they built,” Hagen said. “They posted some of their code online so we could focus on what Emma needed for the chair. It saved us a lot of time.”

The Rogue Robotics team posted the code “so other teams could do this easier,” Hagen said.

The Northwood-Hatton robotics team built a custom circuit board, ran wires and added speed controllers to the existing motors, then tied them into the single small joystick that Emma controls with one hand, said Vogelwede.

“Emma can run the chair in any direction, turn quickly and choose her speed,” Vogelwede said.

A ‘real-life application’

The project for Emma was especially beneficial for the Hatton and Northwood students because “it’s a real-life application; it was more than just a high school application,” said Hagen, adding that the students learned a lot about problem-solving.

“They did a lot of the soldering and a lot of the wiring, which was fun because they don’t get to use those skills too much,” he said. “We tell them that we use a lot of this stuff (in the industry) all the time. It was very different for us as a team.”

As the project neared completion, Emma visited the school so robotics team members could take measurements, make adjustments and fit the chair and mount its upper controls specifically for her.

Watching her operate the wheelchair “was really fun,” according to Hagen.

“It’s nice to give back to the community,” because the Basting family used to live in Northwood, Hagen said.

He and his robotics colleagues have earned the satisfaction of making a device that has dramatically changed a little girl’s life.

“As far as I know, she’s using the chair pretty much every day around the house,” he said. “It took her about a day to get used to it.”