Elevating engineering in the schools
by Julie Titone | © Washington State University
Sean Neal is good at math, but one bit of geometry he can’t master involves moving ten feet up and two feet over. The wheelchair-bound teen isn’t able to climb into a combine to help harvest his family’s wheat fields.
While Neal’s dad was carrying him up a ladder and helping him into the operator’s seat, his math teacher at Garfield-Palouse High School was pondering ways to nudge students toward careers in which they could use their number-crunching skills. Jim Stewart thought an engineering design contest might do the trick. A former baseball coach, Stewart knows kids like to compete. Sure enough, his Gar-Pal design team knocked it out of the park. Their Paraplegic Agricultural Lift (PAL), inspired by the Neal family’s dilemma, won second place in a national competition.
The spark that lit the students’ creative fire was the 2008 JETS/AbilityOne National Engineering Design Challenge, in which high school students design and build devices to help workers with severe disabilities. The students worked early mornings, nights, and weekends, adding elbow grease to their physics and math skills.
Their 2008 success led to a $10,000 grant to improve the lift and an invitation to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in June 2009. “One of the biggest things I’ve learned is what you can do with engineering to actually make a difference,” says team member Travis Mallet. “And I really enjoy taking the abstract ideas from classroom science, math, English, whatever, and transforming it into something concrete.”
The PAL story has many ties to Washington State University and its Pullman campus. “Stew,” as his students call him, earned a degree in social studies and a secondary education teaching certificate at WSU in 1983. Neal is one of several Gar-Pal team alumni who now attend WSU. Robert Lopez, who advises the design team, earned an electrical engineering degree from WSU in 2001.
When Stewart floated the idea of forming an engineering team, Neal and his dad, Warren, had already devised a battery-powered winch to hoist him level with the combine’s cab. But Neal, who has spinal muscular atrophy, still needed help maneuvering into the seat.
The team decided its project would be an automated version of the Neal family’s lift system. They soon realized it would be too ambitious to design something that Neal could use, because of his limited upper body strength, although the machine could help other paraplegics.
The students came up with a modified garage door opener that carries the operator up and over into the combine cab. The idea was simple, but the execution was complicated, says Lopez: “There’s been a ton of challenges carrying this from conception to completion.”
Lopez works for Schweitzer Engineering Laboratories (SEL), an international company founded by former WSU professor Ed Schweitzer that offers products and services for maintaining electrical power systems. His employer has been a steady source of money and equipment for the PAL project, which gets volunteer help from SEL mechanical engineer Craig Thompson. In addition, Schweitzer offered Mallet an internship where he spends part of his time working on PAL under Lopez’s supervision. Mallet is a Running Start student who, while still enrolled at Garfield-Palouse, is already taking classes at WSU.
Schweitzer sees its support of PAL as a good investment, says Tammy Baldwin, the company’s university relations coordinator. “Our industry needs to cultivate engineers,” she says. “These students are interested, motivated, and driven to excel.”
The team was invited to present the prototype at the February competition in Washington, D.C. “At the finals, the kids had to give a 15-minute presentation to a panel of judges and a substantial crowd,” Stewart recalls. “When their turn came, they nailed everything and came in at 14 minutes and 30 seconds.
“Twenty years of coaching baseball and I have never been more proud of a team than I was of those kids then.”
The Garfield-Palouse team won the engineering award, a second-place finish that came with $1,500. The first-place prize went to a design for a device that allows a user to change and tie a trash bag with one hand.
The PAL project drew the attention of Lemelson-MIT InvenTeams, a national initiative to encourage high school students to invent technological solutions to real-world problems. Garfield-Palouse was given $10,000 for research and development, and invited to demonstrate the new-and-improved PAL this summer at MIT.
The 2008–2009 PAL team of 15 members had to raise money for travel expenses to Boston as well as work on a lift design with streamlined electronics. The goal was to make the new version lighter, easier to wire, and, ideally, less expensive. Sean Neal also insisted it be more attractive. “I’ve seen some other lifts, but nothing that’s easy, compact, and looks good—like being painted red, so it matches the combine,” says Neal. He thinks the lift could be adapted for other uses, such as road graders and amusement rides.
Today Neal and Miles Pfaff, another core member of the first PAL team, are in their second year at WSU and mentor the Gar-Pal design team.
The Gar-Pal team hopes to get a provisional patent for the project. “Then, with luck, we’ll sell it,” says Stewart. A project that started out as “building a toy for Sean,” he says, has become a machine that, as he’s heard from other farming families, is sorely needed.
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