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A group of Benilde-St. Margaret’s high school seniors are working on a handy invention to extend the reach of people using wheelchairs.
A national Lemelsom-MT InvenTeams grant provided the St. Louis Park Catholic school with $10,000 to work on the mechanical tool. Students and educators associated with the project showcased their progress thus far in a video made in late February. The final invention prototype is set to be unveiled for the grant program’s virtual EurekaFest in June. The school also plans to reveal the invention to the community in an outdoor event that month.
The School of Engineering at MIT administers the grant program, which is funded by the Lemelson Foundation. Students are collaborating on the project with the Courage Kenny Rehabilitation Institute in Golden Valley.
“It’s been exciting to have the students take on this challenge,” said Matthew White, an occupational therapist and instructor scientist at the institute. “I’ve had many individuals with limited mobility come to me seeking technology to help them push buttons like those found on elevators. Unfortunately, very few options exist on the market.”
A $50,000 robotic arm designed for wheelchair users is available, but the price creates a barrier for most people, White said.
“The students are taking a fresh approach at a design that could have a significant impact for the people we serve at Courage Kenny Rehabilitation Institute,” White said.
Annie Gollinvaux, one of the captains on the project, noted that only 13 teams in the United States received grants to work on inventions. Most of the seniors at Benilde-St. Margaret’s creating the invention have been working together for the last three years. They failed to win a grant the first time they applied, but the new invention idea led to success.
Lauren Palmer, who is on the finance team, said the arm the team is designing will be compact, fast and accurate.
“We are working to make the control system for the arm as simple as possible so that anyone can use it,” Palmer said.
Rachel Brooks, a member of the research and communications team, said White helped inspire the idea of inventing a robotic arm. White had pointed out that many people can travel easily between places in an electric wheelchair but then may have trouble reaching beyond their range of motion.
“This issue restricts their freedom and might even make them feel helpless on their own,” Brooks said. “To have their own independence and not rely on other people for help is a big improvement in the life of a wheelchair user.”
The team connected with Courage Kenny through Brooks’ mother, who works at the institute.
Dani Mergen, another team captain, said the first prototype the students created uses surgical tubes, strong aluminum material and a motor powered by a Raspberry Pi computer, although the team is working to use a smaller, more accessible Arduino robotic system.
Buttons extend and retract the arm. They are seeking to create a new tip for the arm that would be more accurate. The group used 3D printing for plastic components.
Team member Gillian Brown said project goals include receiving feedback from a patient at Courage Kenny and ensuring the robotic arm can hit an elevator button in less than 5 seconds.
Students decided to create a second prototype to compare to the first. They have considered other attachments geared toward picking up objects, ringing doorbells or completing other tasks. The arm would be intended to be adjustable for a variety of wheelchairs, including those used by kids.
Working on the invention while using the hybrid model of instruction has posed challenges, according to Mergen. Some team members are working in person while others are communicating remotely.
“We’ve also learned it has been difficult through that to get our points across because we’re not all in person at the same time,” Mergen said. “We’re all adjusting to the situation and just trying to make the most of it and trying to be as successful as we can.”
The students seek to keep written records to track their work and recall input from team members.
Testing the invention with wheelchair users has been difficult due to the pandemic, Brooks said. However, students also plan to email a survey to volunteers in the Courage Kenny community.
Benilde-St. Margaret’s engineering teacher Anne Dougherty said the grant has allowed students to engage in work that can make a difference in the community.
“An emphasis has always been really on designing with people instead of for people, and that’s such a great developmental experience for high school students,” Dougherty said.
At the beginning of the presentation, she said, “Meaningful invention, innovation and progress happen when students are empowered to ask their own questions and to research the possibilities. Curiosity uncovers differences, similarities, new possibilities and reimagined opportunities. It inspires our students to be critical thinkers.”
Creativity also requires a bit of fearlessness, she added.
“You cannot be afraid to try something new,” Dougherty said. “You cannot be afraid to fail and still be truly imaginative.”
Director of Learning and Technology Steve Pohlen concluded the overview by noting that the engineering program provides real-world experiences for students.
“They are not the leaders of tomorrow,” he said. “They’re the leaders of today.”
The video presentation is at tinyurl.com/4f236c9t. Students also share updates on Instagram @BSMinventeam. The school’s website is BSMschool.org.
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