Teens use skills to open door for fellow student

06/29/2006
By From the Boston Globe

By Richard Thompson, Globe Correspondent

Getting through high school can be challenging enough for any teenager, but for Molly Rizk , a junior at Whittier Regional Vocational Technical High School who has cerebral palsy , one of the most difficult tasks is not taking tests or passing in papers -- it's opening her locker.

But that will likely change in the fall , thanks to the ingenuity of four classmates who have designed and produced a locker remote control that will enable Rizk to get into her locker as quickly as other students.

The device, which took less than two months to complete, was one of four entries highlighted last month at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell's Assistive Technology Design Fair , a noncompetitive event that promotes engineering experience for high school students by completing projects aimed at helping people with special needs or disabilities.

Since it began four years ago , the fair has grown to include more than 100 students from a dozen schools across the country.

For the students from Whittier -- juniors Zachary Drapeau and Tom Smallwood , both of Haverhill , senior Casey Hansen of Haverhill , and Nathan Lindberg, an Amesbury native who graduated earlier this month -- their work could, in turn, make getting through college easier to afford. If they choose to enroll at UMass-Lowell, each student will be eligible to apply for a $2,000 grant for each of the four years.

``We tried to run this like it was a real-world project that an engineering company would go through," said Paul Moskevitz , a machine technology instructor who served as mentor to the group.

More than a dozen students at the Haverhill technical school contributed to the final product, Moskevitz said, adding that he liked how a variety of the school's programs, including carpentry , electronics and robotics , and metal fabrication , were involved in the process.

``We have lots of capabilities at this school, and it was good for folks to see the other disciplines," Moskevitz said .

Students must use keys to unlock their lockers at Whittier. But the device developed by the four students allows Rizk to use a remote control that automatically slides the bolt out of the lock . They have also provided her with an ergonomically designed key, molded to fit her grasp , in case the batteries in the remote stop working .

The remote control uses an infrared signal to ensure that, if more than one is used in a hallway, the signal will only be able to open the locker programmed to the same encryption.

``There was a lot of trial and error along the way," Smallwood said , ``especially trying to fit the parts together and trying to get things to work and to have everything centered so the deadbolt would come across and strike the plate at the right time."

In the last few weeks, the students have been in the process of patenting their device. David Cunningham , the school's technology chairman , said he hopes that the device could have broader application -- a realistic possibility, he said, given that the setup can be easily duplicated and maintained.

Next year, school officials plan to ``check with local nursing homes, because we have connections with a lot of them . . . to see if this device could be used" to help their residents, Cunningham said .

Mike Hart , president of the Haverhill Rotary Club , saw the remote control in action last month when the students sat in on one of his group's weekly meetings. Hart said he was ``very impressed" and the presentation ``really added a lot to the meeting." ``I was amazed at the sophistication and the complexity of the device," he said . ``It was just beyond what you would've expected their achievements to be ."

Echoing a similar sentiment, Rizk said she was moved by the commitment of her classmates.

``When I first saw the actual locker, I was touched that the kids had built this for me," said Rizk, who lives in Lawrence. ``I really appreciated that they took the time out of their busy schedules to do this for me, and I've learned that people can be very caring once you get to know them."