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Youngsters Turn Creative Energy into Action for Disabled

High Schoolers Display Assistive Technology at Fair

Students Jennifer Shields (North Reading High School) and Philip Bailey and Nikhil Nathwani (Chelmsford High School).

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More than 150 students from 16 regional high schools, along with their teachers, advisers and friends, filled the auditorium of Cumnock Hall on May 16 for the seventh annual Assistive Technology Design Fair (ATDF), hosted by the Francis College of Engineering and the UMass Lowell TEAMS Academy.

The fair offered students an opportunity to demonstrate innovative engineering projects aimed at helping people with physical disabilities or special needs tackle everyday tasks that most people take for granted. These projects were the culmination of a four-month-long effort in which the students find a disabled client in their own community, develop a project proposal, use the “engineering design process” to build a product, and present the product to their client and to the public at the design fair.  The ATDF is an outgrowth of the College of Engineering’s Department of Electrical Engineering Assistive Technology Program founded in 1990.

Participating schools included The Engineering School in Hyde Park (Boston), Worcester Polytechnic Institute’s Massachusetts Academy of Math and Science (Worcester region), the Innovation Academy Charter School (Tyngsborough region), Dracut High School, Methuen High School and the UMass Lowell TEAMS Academy (12 nearby school districts).
This year saw a total of 39 projects. One of them is a modified wheelchair designed by TEAMS Academy students Jennifer Shields (North Reading High School) and Nikhil Nathwani and Philip Bailey (both from Chelmsford High School) for their client, named Garrett, who has been disabled from birth and is wheelchair-bound. “Garrett has trouble lifting objects because he lacks strength in both arms,” they said. “Recently, he burst an optic nerve that affected his vision. While this condition should only be temporary ߞ; although it could take years to heal ߞ; at the moment he is having immense trouble finding his way around.”

The students chose to focus on finding a way for Garrett to sense walls and other obstacles. “We have found some similar devices, using computers and terrain/infrared sensors, but very few that specifically catered to blind people, and none that would work well for someone who has little use of their hands and is wheelchair-bound,” they said.

Another standout effort was a project presented by students Nate Gioacchini (Methuen High School) and Kelley Mitchell (Tyngsborough High School) to their client, Bee, who is blind. Bee is a 17-year-old senior at Fitchburg High School whose hobbies include playing the guitar and piano. He also enjoys cooking, but experiences difficulty when it comes to determining the temperature of the food.

“Our idea was to develop a thermometer that has a small audio speaker attached to it,” said the students. “The thermometer can then be set to beep once it reaches a certain temperature. This would be beneficial for determining if the water is boiling or to check the inside of a steak or chicken to tell if it has been cooked all the way through.”

Other projects included a sensory trail conceived by Sovandara Chea and Uyhor Eav (Lowell High School) and Rachel Wilk (Chelmsford High School). “A sensory trail is a pathway that can be of any shape and has many stations that would stimulate one’s senses. We did not aim for one particular client for our project but rather for a group of clients. The Tewksbury Hospital Equestrian Farm is a facility that rehabilitates mentally disabled patients, mostly kids, through horseback riding. The kids are unable to walk on their own and are unable to feel anything around them. Horseback riding helps strengthen their leg muscles and also improve their mental ability. But most importantly, it helps put a smile on the kids’ faces.”
The ATDF program receives generous financial and engineering mentoring support from the UMass Lowell Francis College of Engineering, Phillips Medical Systems, 3M Touch Systems, Medtronics, Tyco Electronics, Goodrich ISR, MIT Lincoln Labs and Teradyne.

- Edwin_Aguirre

Students Rachel Wilk (Chelmsford High School) and Sovandara Chea (Lowell High School).