Middle schoolers devise solution to distracted driving

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The TEXTerminator is a Council Rock team's entry in a national contest. With the device, students aim to prevent texting while driving. (Ron Tarver / Staff Photographer)

From a kitchen in Bucks County, a team of budding middle school scientists from the Council Rock School District has hatched a plot to unleash the TEXTerminator.

The automobile device would shut down a cell phone's texting capabilities and, the hope is, save lives.

"When you put it in perspective," 13-year-old team member Alyssa Sullivan said, "I think you'd rather have your phone shut off than be dead in a car accident."

The idea is a good one - so good that Alyssa and three 12-year-old teammates are in Orlando this week as finalists in a national competition that seeks to marry community service with scientific problem solving.

The contest is sponsored by the Christopher Columbus Fellowship Foundation, set up by the federal government with revenue from the sale of commemorative coins minted on the 500th anniversary of Columbus' discovery of the Americas. The foundation "seeks to nurture pioneering individuals and programs which reflect the visionary spirit" of Columbus.

Middle school students pick a problem and develop a scientific solution. The $25,000 top prize is seed money to help turn the winning team's idea into a reality.

Poll

Have you ever texted while driving?

"It opens the doors to the different sciences and gets kids out into the community to talk to neighbors, mentors, and businesspeople who can help them research their project or develop their solution," said Stephanie Hallman of MMS Education in Newtown Township, Bucks County, which manages the awards.

Teams that have competed in the 14-year-old contest have earned five patents so far, Hallman said. Most recently, a seat cushion that beeps when a person's posture is misaligned won a provisional patent.

The four girls on the Council Rock team brainstormed several ideas, but chose the texting project because "it affects the most people and can help families and save lives," said Isabella DeLuca, a sixth grader at Hillcrest Elementary School in Northampton, whose mother, Tammy, served as team coach.

The group - Isabella, Hillcrest classmates Sara Rowlands and Elizabeth Sauers, and Alyssa, a seventh grader at Holland Middle School - worked on the project at the DeLucas' home for seven months after class and on weekends and holidays.

This is the second Council Rock team that Tammy DeLuca and Elizabeth Sauers' mother, Nancy, have coached to the finals.

Sauers, a former mechanical engineer at Lockheed Martin Corp. in King of Prussia, is a stay-at-home mom who for six years has supervised the annual Hillcrest science fair. She learned about the contest from a school administrator.

"I thought this is a great opportunity. Wouldn't it be great to get a team together?" she said.

She asked her daughter Lauren if she was interested. Lauren, now 14, said yes. Lauren asked some friends, who asked their mothers. The team was born.

Sauers managed to organize work sessions for a group of heavily scheduled students, and in 2007 the team's idea for a newfangled wheeled backpack that could ease the stress on students who carry heavy books made it to the finals.

This time, Sauers asked DeLuca, whose son Peter was on the first team, to take the reins.

"We wanted our younger children to have the same opportunity," said DeLuca, who owns a two-way radio dealership with her husband. "We want to empower them to go out into the world and actually do something that will help people - and not just sit back."

To underscore the need for a TEXTerminator, the team created a 12-question survey and collected data from 763 area high school students ages 16 to 18 and a smaller group of college students.

About 57 percent of the sample reported that they texted while driving, and 23 percent said their parents texted and drove.

Text-messaging while driving is banned in 27 states, including New Jersey but not Pennsylvania, which is considering bills to limit teen and adult use of cell phones. Philadelphia and some suburban municipalities ban the use of handheld cell phones while driving.

"A lot of times kids think they are invincible and nothing can hurt them," Elizabeth said. "But they don't know what can really happen to you."

The team met with two engineers from Subaru, who advised it on design and electronic signaling to block a phone's texting ability. The phone would have to be programmed to receive the signal.

Before leaving for Orlando, the students were honored at a school assembly.

"I'm completely confident they're going to bring home the prize, said Nakia Jones-Tate, principal of Hillcrest. "I told them I would be first in line to purchase one for my 16-year-old daughter."

At the finals, the students will present a possible prototype, a public-service announcement starring the team, a PowerPoint presentation, and a rap song written by the girls ("Textin' in the Car" to the beat of "Pants on the Ground").

Elizabeth will play Taps on her violin when the picture of a teen killed in an car accident is shown.

If Council Rock students beat out the seven other finalists, they'll be one of three local teams to rise to the top. A North Penn team won in 2003 with a special school bus camera, and a Pottstown-area team won in 2004 with a handheld food-label scanner.

"People think they can do two things at once," Sara said. But in this case, "they just can't."

 


Contact staff writer Kristin E. Holmes at 610-313-8211 or kholmes@phillynews.com.