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Instead of building robot arms to play catch with or scripting computer code to do one's homework, the next generation of inventors is developing devices to help others. From Wednesday through Friday, 22 InvenTeams from across the nation will congregate on MIT's campus for the 2007 Odyssey--the finale event to showcase and present invention prototypes.
InvenTeams is an initiative of the Lemelson-MIT Program, which awards grants of up to $10,000 to high school teams to develop, during the school year, inventions that address problems of their choosing. Seven InvenTeams from the 2006-2007 academic year used their problem-solving and engineering skills to design assistive technology. Four of the teams adapted common electronic devices to provide greater independence to people with disabilities.
Pulsing laser remote control
According to Henry Evans, a Californian who is paralyzed from the neck down, "Caregivers have big hearts, but little patience for technology. They refused to use my environmental control unit, because they had to boot up a computer when I wanted to flip on the light switch." When Chris Tacklind, an InvenTeams mentor, visited Evans, a former colleague, in the hospital, he saw an opportunity for a group of creative young inventors to make a difference in the quality of Evans' life. The Palo Alto High School InvenTeam signed up for the challenge.
Evans explained his frustrations with the environmental control unit's complicated interface. "Although it is simple for a techie to set up, I don't live with a techie," said Evans. Tacklind and the 30 students on the InvenTeam brainstormed ways to create an easy-to-operate system that would help Evans navigate through his house independently.
The InvenTeam decided to design a custom remote-control laser device that could be mounted on Evans' eyeglasses. The device they developed directs a pulsing laser to switch on lights or a television, or to perform other day-to-day tasks. The remote control operates through a solar cell, which recognizes the pulsing laser and feeds information into a tiny computer.
More affordable and easier to operate than other environmental control units, this device has given Evans newfound freedom. "It only requires the caregiver to put on my glasses; from there on I do everything. In fact, I can now switch on the light across the room faster than an able-bodied person, with no help.Â It restores a small part of my independence.Â As a bonus, the laser cost tens of dollars instead of thousands, so you don't need insurance to get it," said Evans.
In April, alongside university research labs, start-ups and design studios, the Palo Alto High School InvenTeam displayed its prototype at the Stanford Graduate School of Business "Cool Products Expo," which features cutting-edge technologies from companies. In May, the Palo Alto InvenTeam attended the Maker Faire--a showcase organized by the staff of Make and Craft magazines to celebrate science, art, crafts, and engineering. In June, the students will present their invention at MIT.
The Bromfield School InvenTeam of Harvard, Mass., also received a grant for 2006-2007. Starting in October, this InvenTeam, consisting of seven students, met twice a week for three-hour sessions. Its goal was to develop a user-friendly operating system for those affected by early-stage Alzheimer's disease, dementia and other memory-related illnesses.
This InvenTeam focused on creating a device that would remind users to take their medication or close an open door. Unofficially known as the "aPod," this invention works on a Bluetooth-enabled Palm handheld, which has an easy-to-use three-button shell. The students programmed the device to receive wireless alerts from an electronic pillbox and a door sensor; these alerts are displayed as simple text messages on the Palm screen. The device also generates follow-up reminders that reappear at intervals on the screen until a task has been completed.
"It is more user-friendly and provides confirmation that the user actually performed a necessary function," said Connor MacKenzie, a 10th-grade team member. "Also, it is designed to be fairly inexpensive when commercialized." Possible future functions of the memory-assistive device include brainteasers, music, mind games and a directory with names and pictures of family and friends. These options are meant to stimulate the brains of people who have early-stage Alzheimer's.
Last fall, the Bromfield School InvenTeam met with Colin Twitchell, director of the Lemelson Assistive Technology Development Center of Hampshire College. Twitchell collaborated with the students to create a clay-model prototype to assess the device's form, size and weight.
"I am amazed at what quick studies the kids are. They learned about new software, hardware and wireless technologies at a fast pace," said Barbara Petroulis, one of the InvenTeam's mentors and mother of a ninth-grade InvenTeam member, Mac Devlin.
IT to the rescue
Two other 2006-2007 InvenTeams created assistive devices that rely on information technology: The InvenTeam from Miller Place High School in Miller Place, N.Y., designed a wheelchair tip alarm, and the InvenTeam from Westview High School in Beaverton, Ore., developed a tactile graphing calculator for the blind.
All 22 InvenTeams will showcase their inventions--which span health, safety, environmental and consumer products--in an informal exhibit on Wednesday and Thursday from 9:30 a.m. to noon on Student Street in the Stata Center (Building 32). The InvenTeams will present their invention processes on Wednesday and Thursday from 5:30 to 8 p.m. and on Friday from 10 a.m. to noon at the Kirsch Auditorium in the Stata Center. These events are free and open to the public. For more information, visit web.mit.edu/inventeams/odyssey.html.