With Students, Making Science Fun Is Part Of Design

May 12, 1991|By Erik Nelson | Erik Nelson,Staff writer

With animated coaching from 21 other high school students, two limp-armed competitors maneuvered their chins as their machines whirred and buzzed, causing the pages of a textbook to turn.

With all of thefacial dexterity they could muster, the students tried to show that a paraplegic could use their group's page turner, a device they spentthe school year engineering and building.

The activity is expected to benefit not only the young engineers but also the handicapped and American businesses' ability to compete in the world marketplace.

That's what brought five Westinghouse engineers from Columbia and Linthicum to Hammond High School. They spent the school year showing the 23 students in physics teacher Jay Fogleman's class that engineering, declining in popularity with American students, goes beyond difficult calculations and is a challenging, problem-solving profession.

"This is what I do for fun," said Steve Smalley, a manufacturing engineer who evaluates the viability of other Westinghouse engineers' designs.

For work, Smalley and his colleagues develop such projects as radar systems for the military and envelope sorters for the Postal Service.

"This certainly confirmed what I want," said Gregg Kamosa, 16, a junior who worked on the wiring and assembly of the wheeled page turner. "It helped me make my decision as to what I want to do when I go to college."

Kamosa said the project gave him a first chance to put engineering to work, not just on paper. The two competing machines, student-designed and built, arefor paraplegics or others who can't use their arms.

One machine, made mostly of plywood, is run by two slender joysticks. They cause an amber roller, spun by small pulleys, to lower onto the page and shoot it out from beneath the same way a photocopier feeds documents. Itwas designed from scratch by the students.

Ingenuity aside, the roller assembly needed to be tilted to give each page its last push. It lost the timing competition, taking 2 minutes, 13 seconds, comparedto the other model's 1-minute, 50-second finish during a May 2 "page-off."

The winning machine uses two horizontal plastic discs that,when tilted, operate eight switches. The device, which resembles twominiature metal cranes, lowers a silicon-coated "super ball" onto the page and slowly shoves it to the other side. That one was culled from a photograph of an as-yet unproduced prototype, with students making modifications.

Junior Ashish Bagal, 17, said he and nine other students in the losing plywood group went their own way because they were un comfortable starting with someone else's design.

"I figured that this was supposed to be a students' project," he said, so he brought a rubber paint roller powered by a small motor to show students how it could flip pages.

That inspired the split and competition.

The two projects were judged by the five Westinghouse engineers on the speed they were able to flip through a 10-page chapter and their reliability for turning one page at a time without allowing a pageto flop back.

Westinghouse engineers said they were not surprisedthe students working with the prototype built the faster page-turner; they started with a second-generation prototype.

The design was provided by a group of engineers called Volunteers for Medical Engineering, who donate time and expertise to develop devices to make life easier for the disabled.

The machines were also evaluated on design characteristics, such as safety and anticipated production cost.

The two machines tied in setup time, versatility and reliability. The student-designed model was found to be cheaper to produce. The point difference, 900 to 835, was called negligible. Both devices were considered viable.

"We should be able to sell them to pay for the cost of this project," said Fogleman.

He said the machines cost about $300 to $400 to build, not counting material donated by Westinghouse and student labor in Hammond's metal and wood shop.

The money came from $1,000 that Westinghouse donated for school science programsin exchange for a chance to pitch engineering as a career.

The Westinghouse engineers determined that the models could not get off theproduction floor for less than $500 and would probably sell for about $1,000.

Student research showed the going price for a page-turner is $2,000 to $3,000, Fogleman said.

Though it was based on an existing design, the students made some significant improvements to themetal page-turner.

"The VME model had eight distinct switches," Fogleman said, explaining how his students had translated their experience with video games into a new design with only two joystick-like switches.

Lacking the designs to start with, students were left with plenty of guesswork as they worked from a photo of the prototype.

"We spent a lot of time with Popsicle sticks trying to work this out," Fogleman said. "An engineer would approach this with mathematics,but the students can't do that. This math is pretty esoteric; it's matrix manipulation."

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