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Project Challenges Rachel Carson Students To Engineer With Empathy

HERNDON, VA — Students in Rachel Carson Middle School instructor Mark Bolt’s Engineering 3 class got a hands-on lesson in empathy thanks to their most recent assignment.

The eighth graders had to design, prototype, test, and build an assistive device that could could help a senior adult or a someone with a disability overcome a physically challenging task.

“My goal was to do something more real world and start giving those kids that component of engineering that we don’t always think about or implement at the middle school level,” Bolt said. “They have to put themselves in someone else’s shoes, do the research, and in turn, create product for someone else.

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Rachel Carson eighth-grader Arjungarg, 13, designed a device to help people with disabilities get dressed. (Michael O’Connell/Patch)

For his project, 13-year-old Arjungarg designed a device to help people experiencing back pain and mobility difficulties.

“What this does it it basically helps you hook onto clothes when you’re wearing them, so you don’t have to stretch all the way around,” he said.

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Arjungarg came up the with idea when he noticed that some older people he knew were having a hard time doing simple daily tasks like putting on their clothes.

“I’m actually interested in the medical field, like creating devices such as this, which can assist people who have disabilities,” he said.

Roman, 14, demonstrates the “third thumb” he created to help people maintain a better grip on objects they’re holding. (Michael O’Connell/Patch)

“I call it the third thumb,” 14-year-old Roman said, describing the piece of plastic and rubber bands wrapped around his hand. “You can use it to hold objects, so that it kind of stops them from falling down, even when you’re not pulling at all.”

At first, Roman came up with the idea to help out his grandfather, who was having a hard time holding onto coffee mugs.

“This project made me think about what people are going through and that I may have a very easy life, but for other people it’s hard,” he said. “I was really just thinking, ‘How can I help these people?’ And, ‘I can do things that they can’t, so how can I make it that they can do things that I can?’ It’s really was just my motivation for the whole project.”

For his project, 14-year-old Rishab was inspired to design a back brace that could assist people recovering from spinal surgery. (Michael O’Connell/Patch)

Rishab, 14, designed a back brace to help support people recovering from spinal cord injuries.

“One of the main problems with the injury is that the injury ends up worsening your posture,” he said. “When you try standing up straight, it hurts a little bit. But the problem is when your posture is worse, that makes the injury a lot worse. It’s kind of like a cycle and the way you break that is by helping to fix your posture, while you strengthen your back.”

The idea for the brace came to Rishab when he watched his father playing tennis after recovering from a back injury. If his father had used a brace earlier in his recovery to straighten his posture, his period of recovery might’ve been shorter.

Rishab enjoyed the project, because it gave him the opportunity to design something that benefited others.

“Just the fact that your work, which is something you enjoy, can also helps others just makes it a lot more motivating and really inspiring and fun to do,” he said.

Michael , 14, designed a device to assist people with dyslexia by blocking out words or lines of text that might distract them when they’re trying to read. (Karen Bolt/FCPS)

Michael, 14, noticed that a friend with dyslexia would use his hand to block off portions of something he was trying to read.

For his project, Michael used pieces of 3D printer filaments to create a frame and sturdy paper with folds that served almost like a window blind. By moving the paper, the user could block off words, lines of text, or even paragraphs to help focus in on something they were reading.

“It really helped me understand my friend’s situation and how other people can be affected like this,” Michael said.

Rachel Carson eighth-grader Asritha, 13, shows the assistive device she created to help her grandmother open bottles. (Michael O’Connell/Patch)

Asritha noticed that her grandmother was struggling to open bottles due to her arthritis.

“I really felt like I needed to do something to help her out,” the 13-year-old said, on Friday. “When I heard about engineering, the first thing that came to mind was I could do something about this.”

Asritha used a drill bit and a laser cutter to make three bottle-cap-sized holes in a block of wood. With a glue gun, she covered the inside of the holes with hot glue, creating a sticky surface that would grip the bottle cap and keep it from slipping.

“I gained a lot of engineering experience, using different tools, experimenting with a lot of machines,” Asritha said, when asked what she liked about the project. “Another thing I really gained was learning about empathy, learning to connect with people, understanding somebody’s views, understanding their struggles, because a simple task such as opening a water bottle can be really difficult for some people.”

Arya, a 14-year-old eighth grader, designed an adaptive device to help people with cerebral palsy open doors. (Michael O’Connell/Patch)

The inspiration for 14-year-old Arya’s project came from a video shown in class about adaptive devices used by people with cerebral palsy.

“They said that opening doors are really hard for them,” she said.

Arya noticed that the door to her classroom opened by pushing down on the door handle. She decided to design something that would make that process easier for someone with cerebral palsy.

“I was envisioning a very long piece and then I would use a foot pedal to open it,” Arya said. “But the problem is I had to use Velcro and Velcro isn’t very strong.”

After doing some research, Arya came up with a design that used a rubber strap and a piece of wood held together with glue. On Friday, she used her classroom door to demonstrate how the device she created worked. (See video.)

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