Despite the restrictions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, many Pocahontas County students and teams have managed to continue their education and reach some milestones.
One team in particular – the Green Bank Elementary-Middle School robotics team – had a very productive spring and is currently seeking a patent for one for their creations.
Led by Green Bank Observatory director Karen O’Neil and software engineer Paul Marganian, the team would usually be preparing for competitions – including the 2019-2020 world competition.
Along with competitions, the team was invited to participate in the First LEGO League Global Innovation Award event.
“They select one hundred teams from around the world – out of 36,000,” O’Neil said. “[Our team] was chosen as one of the top one hundred.”
Usually, the top 20 teams of those 100 are selected and attend the challenge, where the top three teams are selected. Due to the pandemic, however, the 100 teams all presented their projects and attended the awards ceremony remotely through Zoom.
Teams are given a problem to solve and use their robotics knowledge to create a solution.
“Two years ago, the project problem was about long term travel to space – sending somebody to Mars,” Marganian said. “This past year’s problem was more about identifying a problem in your community.”
The team took the problem and brainstormed a project that could not only help their own community, but maybe even impact the world. Their solution was literally an open door.
“We have these doors at the observatory that have long handles and you have to turn them to open up the room and turn them again when you get in the room,” O’Neil explained. “They’re for shielding the radiowaves. [The team] discovered that there are tens of thousands of these doors around the world, and they also discovered that people in wheelchairs can’t open them.
“So they decided to invent something to allow people in wheelchairs to open these doors on their own,” she continued. “The team really wanted to focus on something that could be used locally, but could also be used by a lot more people. The observatory has about fifteen or twenty of these doors, but like I said, they really got excited about the project when they discovered that there are tens of thousands of these out there in the world.”
The team designed a mechanism, built a prototype and was just about to work on installation to see if the mechanism worked, when schools and the observatory were closed due to the pandemic.
“They couldn’t get together to work on it, but in the meantime, somebody said to them, ‘this is pretty cool; you should get a patent,’” O’Neil said.
O’Neil said she didn’t think it would be possible; that a group of kids couldn’t possibly get a patent. But, after discussing the project with a patent lawyer, she realized it was possible and the team began the process to patent their invention.
“It’s pretty cool,” she said. “The concept is simple. They realized they had to make it simple. They had to look into things like how high off the ground somebody in a wheelchair sits. They talked to Ben Rittenhouse at Seneca Trails Physical Therapy about reach and movement of people in wheelchairs.”
After the team made the design and prototype, it was time to have the mechanism machined and installed on one of the doors.
The machine shop at GBO – which is known for its ability to make anything – helped the team make a metal version of the mechanism. The team also received help from mechanical engineer Dennis Egan on the mechanism and business manager Mike Holstine on the practical mechanical engineering.
The team also received help from Mike Hedrick and Nathaniel Langston.
After the work was complete, all that needed to be done was to test it.
“The very last day before the observatory shut down, the machine shop handed us the machine metal grabber,” O’Neil said. “So as I was being sent home and school was being let out, I grabbed one of the keys and went to test it on the doors. It was literally the last day before shut down.
“We got to try it and cheered, ‘it worked, it worked!,” she continued. “Then we all were sent home.”
With the project complete and a prototype which works, the team is just waiting for the patent application process to be finished, and for the pandemic to be over so they can have more mechanisms made.
“It’s been really cool watching the kids work on this idea together,” O’Neil said. “They very much wanted to make something that would help people. We know it works. We have it all together. We just need access to the observatory to do the last part.”
The team includes Florian Baudler, Willie O’Ganian, Duncan Sizemore, Tristan Sizemore and mentor Max O’Ganian.