Visually impaired get a helping hand
Flowers students pursue patent for homing device
While most of his classmates had a chance to switch textbooks in their lockers between classes, former Charles H. Flowers High School student Michael Spriggs, who is blind, was never given a locker. Instead, he used the guidance office, which was nowhere near his classes because he couldn’t use the combination locks.
But eight of Spriggs’ classmates came up with an invention they hope evens the playing field for him and other visually impaired students.
Members of Project Lead The Way, an extracurricular group for students interested in engineering, created a Braille push pad lock and homing device that allows a visually impaired student to locate his or her locker from up to 600 feet away. The students came up with the idea in August 2007 and began building in January, finishing in June.
To find a locker, a student presses a locator which vibrates more frequently the closer he or she gets to the locker, which has a homing device on the lock.
Spriggs, 19, of Mitchellville said the invention will be useful to the visually impaired student, especially since Braille books are two or three times the size of textbooks and Braille is twice as large.
‘‘One book in print could be as much as 10 volumes in Braille,” Spriggs said.
Their invention did not go unnoticed.
The team earned a $7,500 Lemelson-MIT InvenTeams High School Invention Grant in September 2007 to pursue a patent. The group recently presented its invention at the Eureka Fest showcase June 25 to 29 at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology campus in Cambridge, Mass.
Teammates — Taylor Medlock, 17, of Bowie; RaSaun Davenport, 17, of Clinton; Mia Reed, 18 of Springdale; Christen Gillis,18, and Don Lewis Jr., 18, both of Forestville; and 17-year-olds Whitney Meacham, Miya Robinson and Vincent Moten of Upper Marlboro — have worked 12 to 14 hour days daily following their May 27 graduation either at Gillis’ home or at the school until the early morning hours, perfecting their invention.
Advisor Victoria Lee, a teacher at the school, said Gillis’ father, Kevin Gillis, a Lockheed Martin engineer, allowed the students to work at his home and offered assistance.
During the school year, students spent time after school testing the prototype and sending surveys to Maryland School for The Blind students asking if they preferred push pad or turn dial locks. Students also sought help from University of Maryland, College Park, and Howard University professors.
‘‘A lot of the technology was far more advanced than what we already knew, that’s why we had to reach out to experts,” Robinson said.
While at MIT, the eight also attended a two-day ‘‘Invention to Venture” workshop, where they learned how to do a 30-second pitch and create a business plan for their invention. Lemelson-MIT InvenTeams grant officer Leigh Estabrooks said the group was the only all-black team in the showcase.
Reed said Jennifer Jackson, coordinator for the National Collegiate Inventors and Innovators Alliance, said she believed their product was marketable and suggested they apply for a $20,000 grant through her organization to pursue a patent.
‘‘They really loved the project to the point where they want the kids to finish it,” Lee said.
Reed said her teammates eventually want their invention patented. Lee said the students will have to seek out a patent lawyer if they wish to continue, but the coordination is up to the students, who are all attending college in the fall at places such as Temple University in Philadelphia and the Rochester Institute of Technology.
‘‘We do want to continue it,” Reed said. ‘‘It’s just a matter if we’re going to meet over breaks or create individual teams at our schools.”
E-mail Natalie McGill at email@example.com.