By SARAH ROBERTS
For Your Niskayuna
Several students at Niskayuna High put away their books in exchange for some hands-on engineering experience through a special class in the school’s Engineering Technology Department this past year.
The class, called Senior R&D and taught by Rich DeSimone, is structured much like a graduate student’s capstone project. Students have to take prerequisite math and science courses in their freshman year to be eligible for the class as seniors. All four years of study lead up to one final application in problem solving, where students create and test a product of their own design.
For their grand finale, the students showcased their work to the community in a science fair-like setting, opening the floor for the community to question and criticize designs.
In recent years, DeSimone has also required that the projects have an altruistic motivation.
“I got sick of kids solving problems like ‘How to make your gym shoes not smell,’ so I added a required humanitarian aspect to the project,” he explained.
Tired of his students tackling problems with obvious solutions, DeSimone decided to contact the Helen Keller Institute to find out what kind of issues blind and deaf patients were having in their everyday lives.
Two such problems included finding a method for those who are blind to boil water, and finding a more effective way for a patient who is blind and deaf to navigate with a walker.
“A problem like smelly gym shoes has one solution: Make the shoes smell better. But, when you’re working with real people, the solution is not always so obvious or easy to find,” DeSimone said.
For one project, Drew Fatone and Grant Chaskin built a temperature sensor that would send a message to a wireless wristband to alert the blind person wearing it that the water was boiling. The team believed their solution to be a vast improvement on the common method for a blind person to boil water, which simply involved using a bare hand to feel above a pot for heat and steam.
David Etkin and Nolan Tunny fitted infrared sensors and vibrating handles to a walker to alert a blind user when they were approaching an obstacle. They called the product IRAWS, short for Infrared Assistive Walker System. Both Niskayuna seniors are attending Siena next year for computer science, and want to continue improving their invention in hopes of having it patented one day.
Unfortunately, patient confidentiality rules prevent the inventive students from directly sharing their solutions with the Helen Keller Institute at this time. However, Niskayuna science teacher Paul Scott emphasized the importance these projects have in helping students learn to apply their book knowledge to real-world problems.
“All of the problems are very different, which is what makes this so authentic. These are real problems involving real people, and the best part is that the students can’t just flip to the back of the book to find an answer. They have to try and fail to make any progress,” Scott explained after he finished grilling Fatone and Chaskin on the functionality of their water boiling system.
One pair of young engineers chose to explore a problem that hit close to home. Patrick Trant and Conor McDonough both have grandparents who live with essential tremors, a condition that can make simple tasks like drinking coffee and eating dinner difficult.
In order to help their grandparents, the two created a 1.4-pound weighted bracelet that would stabilize the user’s shaking muscles and minimize tremors. The idea came to the boys after they noticed that people with essential tremors often have to put pressure on their tremoring arms to prevent shaking.
Trant and McDonough first showed off their original prototype, which was a full weighted sleeve instead of the bracelet. But, as Trant said, “the heavy sleeve was too hot and uncomfortable, so we had to scrap our idea and think of a new one.”
From there, Trant and MacDonough decided to concentrate the weight into a smaller (and more attractive) metal bracelet.
This failing and rethinking is exactly the kind of process DeSimone wants his students to experience. In the case of Trant and McDonough, the young engineers were fortunate enough to be able to test their product on their grandparents.
The results were a pleasant surprise to all, and a testimony from McDonough’s grandmother read:
“I have been self-conscious about my tremors for a couple of years. Eating or drinking with others can be embarrassing if I spill things when my hand shakes. This invention has stabilized the shaking, and I can now eat and drink more comfortably.”
Trant and McDonough proudly shared their success with their teachers and family, smiling at the result of their hard work. Proud of their accomplishments, the pair felt that the failures in their project forced them to think outside the box more than a textbook would have, giving them useful learning skills that they’ll be glad to have when they start college in the fall.
Tunny was very happy with his results as well, and commented on the four-year journey that led to their students’ final capstone project.
“We’ve been taking science and math classes since freshman year, but it was interesting to finally do something to help someone. We’re really pleased and I think our product came out great, but this is just the beginning. With more resources, we hope to continue with this project in the future and make even more improvements.”