No one would ever know what cool project Daniel Lubacz's industrial design class at Bensalem High School would be working on if there hadn't been several inches of snow on the ground in February when a Villanova University professor showed up to inspire students to make devices to help the disabled.
The winter storm — and an off-the-cuff suggestion by the professor, Christa Bialka — led weeks later to a gaggle of students at the Bucks County high school busily working around a table on the prototype for what they dreamed up that day: A snow sled for the visually impaired.
"It's a win-win situation," said 16-year-old Brandon Gomez, part of a student design team that talks in animated terms about how ultrasonic devices attached to levers will cause vibrations to warn a blind sledder about oncoming obstacles. "We're doing something fun and helping someone with a disability in the process."
"If it doesn't work and it goes horribly wrong — which it totally could, it happens all the time — then they will have considered the needs of people with disabilities," said Lubacz, who is also the engineering coordinator at Bensalem High.
But six of Lubacz's students – who've been working on the sled almost every afternoon since early February and hope to have it done in a few weeks – seem obsessed with making sure that the project doesn't go horribly wrong. They hope their plywood prototype, currently with wheels for testing on dry ground, will eventually help a blind child enjoy the thrill of racing downhill on a snow day.
To make a working sled, the teens are learning how to troubleshoot and use computer models and 3-D printers to create and program their design. They've also consulted with a disabled student and advocates at Villanova to see how their idea for beeping Bluetooth steering commands would be received (not well).
"We've had tons of Amazon Prime boxes at my house. We're buying parts at a rapid pace," Lubacz said.
Last year, his industrial design classes worked on a different universal design project – a telescoping, collapsible ramp that could fit on the back of the user's wheelchair for clearing curbs and other obstacles – and entered it in the statewide STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) competition, although it didn't advance beyond the regionals.
This year, Lubacz invited Villanova's Bialka, an education professor who works closely on campus with LEVEL, an activist and awareness-raising group about disabilities. In her lecture, she noted that Bensalem schools had been delayed two hours that morning by snow, and she challenged the kids to think about how a blind child might be able to enjoy sledding.
"They kind of latched on," Bialka recalled. She said she told the class about the problem of "ability privilege" in design and the importance of engineering products that everyone can use. "If they do choose to go into engineering, it's important for them to design and think about everybody instead of the standard population," she added. "Disability is often one of the others that get left out."
Bialka also connected the class with the head of Villanova's office of disability services, Gregory Hannah, who also works with LEVEL and arranged a focus group that included a visually impaired student who told the Bensalem kids that their idea for a sled with beeping Bluetooth commands was flawed because vision-impaired sledders wouldn't wear noise-canceling headphones, which might prevent them from hearing other sounds.
LEVEL has worked with a few other local schools in its mission to change the way people see ability. But Hannah said a sled is one of the more innovative ideas since he started working with the group.
"I've had students ziplining, students rock climbing, students 40, 50 feet off the ground propelled in full body harness, and had blind students using power tools," he said.
The sled prototype that the students are working on uses a $40 microcontroller board – the biggest expense so far — that connects with an ultrasonic sensor in the front of the sled to detect any obstacles and send vibrations to either the left or right brake handle, signaling the driver to turn. The stronger the vibration, the closer the obstacle.
The caster wheels on the current prototype, which is slightly less than 5 feet long, allow the students to test it without snow; the final version would have skis underneath. Ultimately, Lubacz said, the plywood prototype could be replaced with a plastic model, created either by using a vacuum-forming plastic machine, or by perhaps buying an existing sled and retrofitting it with the various brakes and levels.
"We rode it down the hall but we couldn't steer it yet — there were no levers," said junior Mike Wible, 17. The kids said they are racing against a class deadline later this month to make key decisions – including whether to install the Bluetooth system as an option – but agreed with confidence that this will be a one-of-a-kind contraption.
"Our bet is that it will work," said 17-year-old junior Tom Kelly, who is making a video chronicling the project and explaining universal design. He quickly added, "We'll have to test it." Even before it's tested, another team member is tasked with developing a business plan for how the sled could be marketed.
"Sledding is a basic childhood experience," Kelly said. "We want to give that opportunity to people who haven't experienced it."
"I view it differently than they do," Lubacz said of the ultimate goal. "It's an experience working with somebody who is visually impaired and taking an idea and coming up with a product. Even if the product doesn't work, they had this experience."