FIRST Newsletter - September, 2012 - School Principal Inspires FIRST Team to Fight Lou Gehrigs Disease

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School Principal Inspires FIRST Team to Fight Lou Gehrig’s Disease

FIRST teams have long been known for their scientific and technological acumen. Many have been recognized for their Gracious Professionalism. And others have been applauded for their tenacity during rigorous robotics competitions. Still, there are those special few who go above and beyond even the highest standards set by the organization.

Such is the case with FIRST Robotics Competition (FRC) Team 2022 “Titan Robotics” of Aurora, Illinois, which created a pre-season competition — Robotics Advancing the Human Condition — with a very altruistic goal in mind: to help their high school principal, Dr. Eric McLaren, deal with a recent diagnosis of Lou Gehrig’s (ALS) disease.

ALS is a disease that causes gradual paralysis to the body's muscles, eventually restricting all body control. Loss of upper body muscle control leaves patients without use of their arms and hands, which, among other things, makes it difficult to feed themselves.

Rather than feeling disheartened by the news, the team of 34 students from the Illinois Science and Math Academy (IMSA) decided to do something about it. Team 2022 members have been hard at work developing and building a device that will not only help Principal McLaren, but could also assist many others with special needs who have limited use of their upper body. The device, which was developed with the use of the Microsoft Kinect, the Kinect SDK, the Arduino UNO Microcontroller, and the Visual Studio C# IDE, is a robotic arm controlled entirely by leg movements. The apparatus is unique in its affordability: it costs just under $1,000, which is significantly less than similar devices.

“I wanted to do something that could make a difference. I wanted to be part of project that could potentially help a lot of people,” says team member Ethan Gordon.

Titan Robotics Mentor Jim Gerry says the device has been a big success and that Principal McLaren, who is also vice president for academic programs at ISMA, learned how to use it in about five minutes. Gerry adds that Dr. McLaren was “thrilled and moved by the student's project selection, dedication to the project, and final result. It brought him to tears when we first showed him the arm and he learned how to use it. This type of experience for high school students is life changing.”

According to Gerry, this particular project has taught Team 2022 many things, but most importantly team members have learned how a meaningful, human-oriented project and 21st Century workplace tools motivate students beyond their (and his) wildest dreams. “When students are engaged in authentic work, they discover purpose, engagement, and build knowledge that far exceeds traditional standards. Project-based work like this engages students to the extent they dedicate many hours selflessly; the word ‘homework’ takes on new meaning.”

The team’s efforts on the robotic arm have been instrumental in determining the overall Robotics Advancing the Human Condition project for 2012-2013: a wheel chair lift that will raise its occupant 10 inches, so that he or she can reach things that are counter height. The team welcomes input from other FIRST members and invites them to contact Titan Robotics at if they would like to get involved. Gerry says, “These kinds of projects aren’t going to stop. People need help and robots can help us. They give students opportunities to learn; to experience and participate in engineering by doing. I don’t think there’s a better way to learn than that.”

Adam Novak, a charter team member Alum who is still very active with the team, adds, “I really like that it’s got a point to it. We’re not doing robots because robots are fun. We’re doing robots because robots are important.”

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