Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Teens invent communication device for their disabled classmates

From The Virginian-Pilot on June 24 (there's also a video of the invention on the Web site):

NORFOLK -- Kent Collins teaches computer systems classes and coaches the robotics team at Norview High School.

Down the hall, Dorothy Elkins teaches students with multiple disabilities. Most have cerebral palsy and struggle to communicate.

When Collins received an $8,000 grant to work with his students on an invention, he thought immediately of his colleague.

"He came to me one day and said, 'Is there anything special we can do for your students?' " Elkins said.

The result is the "Conversation Starter," a device that Collins' students hope will help those with cerebral palsy communicate better.

To research their invention, Collins' team of teens visited with Elkins' class and traveled to St. Mary's Home for Disabled Children. They learned that communications devices cost between $2,000 and $10,000 and that some require six hours of charging for eight hours of use. People with limited movement were unable to handle most models.

Working on Wednesday afternoons and some weekends, the students designed, built and programmed their instrument.

As a person presses down on a single button, the computer scrolls through a list of letters or words. To select a letter, word or phrase, the person lets up pressure on the button. The device also remembers frequently used phrases.

The students estimate the cost of the "Conversation Starter" at about $800.