Teens bring brainpower to UMass Lowell tech fair

05/05/2006
By From the Lowell Sun

By HILLARY CHABOT, Sun Staff
Lowell Sun

LOWELL -- The mechanical whir of a buzz saw competed with the persistent banging of a hammer as junior Travis Thibodeau toiled at a cabinet during an engineering class at Westford Academy.

Thibodeau, 17, worked while he explained his vision of mechanical moving shelves to help his 5-foot-tall grandmother reach her canned goods.

"I just figured instead of bringing her to the cabinet, I'd bring the cabinet to her," Thibodeau said.

Thibodeau's idea is the genesis of a design titled "Overhead Cabinets for the Vertically Challenged," which is one of seven projects to be entered by Westford Academy students into a technology design fair at UMass Lowell. All the projects are supposed to help people with disabilities or special needs.

The Assistive Technology Design Fair tomorrow from 9 a.m. to noon at Cumnock Hall will display the work of local students from Westford, Dracut and Tyngsboro high schools, plus those from schools in Cambridge, Milford and Fitchburg. The best entries will earn four students $2,000 renewable engineering merit scholarships.

"It's an important mission for us to engage high school kids in activities, and this gives them real-world engineering experience," said Doug Prime, director of the K-12 educational outreach at UMass Lowell's college of engineering. "It's a tough project for them."

Don Rhine has had his engineering classes at Tyngsboro High School involved in the competition since its inception four years ago. Tristan Dion, Victoria Solla, and Mike Murphy are working on a stable lunch tray for 8-year-old Tyngsboro Elementary student Danny Sicard, who has cerebral palsy.

"A lot of disabled people, all they want is be able to do something simple that we do in everyday life," Rhine said. "This kid wanted to stand in the lunch line like every other kid."

The cerebral palsy affected Sicard's right arm, and he didn't have the motor skills to hold a lunch tray, according to Rhine. The design uses a backpack to create a stable triangle so he can rest the lunch tray on his right arm in the lunch line.

If projects from past years are any indication, Rhine believes Sicard will love the invention.

"They designed an Xbox controller for him two years ago, and the first day we gave it to him they couldn't get him off the Xbox," Rhine said.

Westford Academy sophomore Matthew Harrington has been working on a mechanical arm for 17-year-old junior Maggie Wauters. Harrington's team hopes Wauters can use the arm from her wheelchair to grab books from a high places, like the shelf in her locker at Westford Academy. First, however, they must to stop some suspicious smoke coming from the motor of the arm.

"It looks like you have all the power you need, it's just a matter of routing it," Westford Academy engineering teacher David Amos advised the group.

While these classes give students experience in designing and executing real-life engineering projects, Rhine pointed out, that doesn't always mean the projects are a success.

"Of course, not every one of our projects turns out as well as we would like," Rhine said. "Even so, the students learn some practical problems engineers must deal with when working on projects. The students also enjoy helping someone in the community -- I think this is the greatest reward."