Once Upon a Time in Wisconsin: The Extraordinary Journey of Marquette Engineers
Imagine a world where someone spends their days tinkering with children’s toys, traveling the globe, and dedicating their work to serving children and families. Now, set aside thoughts of a certain famous resident of the North Pole, and instead, let me introduce you to a pair of extraordinary engineers from Marquette University in Wisconsin.
Meet Molly Erickson and Dr. Gerald Harris, two alumni from Marquette who graduated 40 years apart but share a passion for making a difference in the lives of children. They work together at the Marquette and Medical College of Wisconsin Orthopaedic & Rehabilitation Engineering Center (OREC), a group of research laboratories that specialize in motion analysis, sports medicine, biomaterials and histology, and orthopaedic biomechanics. Harris co-founded OREC in 1989, and since then, it has become a hub for community outreach initiatives driven by Erickson and Harris.
For Harris, a professor emeritus of biomedical engineering, his dedication to serving others was sparked when he first encountered a child with cerebral palsy during his graduate studies at Marquette in 1978. That encounter left a lasting impression on him and ignited a sense of purpose to make a difference in the lives of children in need.
“It’s the core Jesuit identity. It’s service to others that drives everything,” Harris explains. “This is a vocation you dream about because it integrates all these higher-order things that we strive for and makes it something that we can actually realize.”
Erickson shares similar sentiments. As a research engineer, she finds great joy in her work when she sees the impact it has on families. “When families are so excited to get a ride-on car, adapted toy, or new quality of life, it is really motivating,” Erickson says. “Getting to help them and serve them in any way is really rewarding.”
Together, Erickson and Harris focus their engineering skills and problem-solving abilities on three programs that aim to improve the daily lives and independence of children with mobility and developmental challenges.
One of their flagship programs is Go Baby Go! Milwaukee, which they have been collaborating on since 2016 with physical and occupational therapists from Children’s Wisconsin. This program provides free modified ride-on cars for children with mobility needs, giving them more ways to move, engage with others, and experience a sense of independence. Erickson leads the technical design and modification of the vehicles, while the Children’s Wisconsin therapists customize the modifications to suit each child’s specific needs.
Their work with Go Baby Go! Milwaukee has been immensely impactful, with 304 cars deployed to date. However, the success of the program has also brought about a growing waitlist. To address this, Erickson found a way to expand their capacity by involving undergraduate engineering students and local high school students from FIRST Robotics teams. By providing expert oversight and guidance, Erickson enables the students to work on the modifications, simultaneously honing their technical skills and making a tangible difference in the lives of others.
Drew Donahoe, a Marquette biomedical engineering student involved in the program, attests to the value of this experiential learning opportunity, saying, “The combination of giving back to the Milwaukee area, expanding on valuable engineering, and leadership skills, and building a sense of community gives me a chance to put into action some of the values that led me to choose Marquette University in the first place.”
While still working to expand the fleet of Go Baby Go! cars, Erickson and Harris also provide support for OREC’s Global Outreach Gait Labs. These labs establish state-of-the-art facilities worldwide for clinicians to treat children with gait complications. The data collected in these labs helps doctors develop more effective treatments for children with neuromuscular issues such as cerebral palsy, clubfoot, and spina bifida. Erickson travels internationally to establish new labs and support the expansion of existing sites, allowing OREC to serve countless children globally.
Their impact reaches even further through a collaboration with Penfield Children’s Center, where Erickson and Harris have helped make adaptive toys. Traditional adaptive toys can be prohibitively expensive, so Erickson utilizes her technical know-how to modify regular toys, making them more accessible for children with disabilities. By wiring in simple therapy switches, the toys can be used by therapists and families to promote motor, cognitive, and social skill development. Erickson organized adaptive toy build days with Penfield, involving students from various high schools, Marquette graduate and undergraduate students, and volunteers, all working together to adapt over 140 toys.
Vladimir Bjelic, a speech-language pathologist at Penfield Children’s Center, explains the impact of the adaptive toys: “With the adapted toys, I see kids make sounds and react in ways they haven’t before, and it helps parents realize other ways to engage with their children that bring joy and happiness.”
Erickson’s engineering mind is constantly pushing the limits, and her next endeavor is the Inclusive Play: Toys for All build days. With the involvement of Marquette occupational therapy students and an increased goal of adapting 260 toys, Erickson is determined to create more inclusive play opportunities for children of all abilities.
Impressively, Erickson and Harris aren’t content with keeping their knowledge and expertise to themselves. They actively collaborate with other education institutions, international groups, and startup toy workshops, sharing their work and inspiring others to replicate and build upon their efforts.
For these engineers, the ultimate goal is to provide more children with the opportunity to play, learn, and grow. Their passion for solutions and service fuels their drive to continue making a difference. They firmly believe that where there is a will, there is always a way.
In a world where engineering is often associated with cold, technical challenges, Erickson and Harris have shown us the heart and warmth behind their work. Through their dedication, creativity, and empathy, they are shaping a brighter future for children with varying mobility and developmental challenges. So, the next time you think of extraordinary engineers, remember these Marquette alumni who are making the world a better place, one toy at a time.
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