Exchange Program Leads Toronto Doctoral Student to Design Video Game to Help Kids with Cerebral Palsy

Exchange Program Leads Toronto Doctoral Student to Design Video Game to Help Kids with Cerebral Palsy

An exchange program, sponsored by nonprofit organization Mitacs and the University of Toronto, gave doctoral student Alexander MacIntosh the opportunity to design a video game to help youths with cerebral palsy improve function in their underused hand.

His goal was to make occupational therapy less taxing for cerebral palsy patients. During the game, similar to “Super Mario Bros.” in that it scrolls side to side, the player opens a hand to get his or her character to act. The player also wears a smart armband that registers movement and evaluates performance, MacIntosh said in a press release.

He conducted his research in Toronto and Paris as part of a yearlong exchange. A congenital disorder of movement, muscle tone or posture, cerebral palsy affects about 200,000 individuals annually.

Opening up opportunities for more students like MacIntosh, the University of Toronto and Mitacs have now agreed to a three-year, $1.4 million exchange program to help students gain experience in top laboratories and research environments around the world and give them exposure to the diverse cultures of inbound students.

Up to 200 University of Toronto students will get $6,000 to conduct research abroad for at least three months, and at least 80 international students will likewise be able to study in Toronto.

Mitacs will split the bill for the funding with the University of Toronto or a partner institution.

The nonprofit, which has sponsored past University of Toronto study abroad opportunities, designs and delivers research and training programs in Canada. Working with dozens of universities and thousands of firms, along with federal and local governments, it has supported industrial and social innovation in Canada since 1999.

“It really is about building a global community and experience for everyone,” said Christopher Yip, the university’s associate vice president of international partnerships. “What I’m particularly excited about is how the Mitacs support will nucleate new ideas and concepts by helping students move between different labs around the world.”

Beyond academics, he said, students will gain new global perspectives and learn about different cultures.

“To succeed in the global economy, innovators need opportunities to develop their skills in international environments,” said Ridha Ben Mrad, Mitacs’ chief research officer and associate academic director.

According to a 2014 study by Leger, a Canadian-owned research and strategic marketing firm, 82 percent of employers at small and medium businesses believe that culturally knowledgeable employees who understand global markets give their company a leg up.

In addition, a European Commission report found that students in its Erasmus exchange program were less likely to be jobless after graduation than students who didn’t participate.

As for the Mitacs agreement, it’s in line with the university’s overall efforts to promote study abroad. Through at least 2022, the university is stepping up financial aid to students in need.

Mahvish Wesley, assistant director of global initiatives at Toronto, said the university values foreign study. “We don’t study in isolation, we don’t operate in isolation,” he said. “Having globally diverse experiences for students undertaking research is very important.”

The program is open to all University of Toronto students in any discipline. Applicants may use the university’s new learning abroad site to connect with the Centre for International Experience. Students must give at least eight weeks’ notice of study plans, and are required to find supervisors for their home and host institutions. They also must submit a research proposal.