It’s a simple machine — some pieces of scrap wood with plastic channels inside and a funnel on the outside. But the machine designed by Gardner Edgerton High School students has the potential to make work and perhaps future employment a lot easier for people with developmental disabilities.
And it didn’t hurt the students’ resumes, either. The seven-member Engineering Team took third place this year in the National Engineering Design Challenge for their machine.
The students designed the box as a way to help Roy Brown of Gardner improve in the work he does counting and packing parts at Johnson County Developmental Supports facility in Lenexa. Brown is one of about 180 people employed at the facility who count and pack bags of small parts for local companies.
Members of the extracurricular, after-school club made multiple trips to consult with Brown about how he does his job. After testing three prototypes, the group came up with a simple solution — a box with a detachable top that has holes into which the small parts can be positioned. The worker can plug the holes not needed, so there’s no need to count the pieces each time. Once the pieces are loaded, a removable panel underneath lets them fall through a funnel and into a plastic bag.
Brown demonstrated the machine at a small recognition ceremony for the group with county officials and Commission Chairman Ed Eilert recently. The box is simple to use, portable and costs only $16.49 to make. And best of all, it improved Brown’s efficiency in packing the bags by about 40 percent, said Brian Skibbe, assistive technology specialist at JCDS.
Developmental Supports will soon have three of the machines on hand to help other workers. The boxes are expected to help workers there earn more, since they are paid on a piecework basis, Skibbe said.
But the impact has the potential to be greater than that. Although developmental services employs some workers with disabilities, there’s also a push to get them out into the community and working in private-sector jobs, said Beth Johnson, director of day and employment services at JCDS.
Sometimes that’s difficult because of the perception among prospective employers that they’d have to invest in expensive technology to hire a person with a developmental disability, she said. The machine the students built is portable, inexpensive and could make them more employable, she added.
For the school and Brown, there was a more immediate reward. Brown accompanied the group to the final showcase in Washington, D.C., where the third-place award was given. The school got an $8,000 for a prize, and Brown got $1,000 for his efforts as a consultant.
To get that honor, the team met most days, including winter break, after school. They were already familiar with Developmental Supports from the previous year, when members worked on the problem of labeling test tubes, said team member Ethan Eccles. Their challenge included building and testing models, then making a video and writing papers explaining the machine and its marketing.
The award, and the satisfaction of helping Brown, have reinforced the team’s love of engineering. The four on hand at the recognition said they wanted to pursue some type of engineering study in college.
“I’ve known I wanted to be an engineer since sixth grade,” said Eccles, a senior.
Joe Corbin, a junior, agreed. He said he likes engineering because, “it helps people, especially doing projects like this. It’s a way to make the lives of others easier and it helps employment,” he said.
The team members said they do not plan to seek a patent for the machine. Keeping it open-source will make it more accessible to others who need it.
“If they think this device could help them, we don’t want to keep them from using it. It makes people more independent,” Eccles said. “If someone wants to use it they can make one of their own.”
Gardner-Edgerton has come to own engineering with its after-school club. The school has been to the national finals in the design challenge nine times, often competing against bigger school systems and magnet schools that have engineering as a theme, said Larry Ward, one of the team’s two coaches.
“We’re more of a cross-curricular approach,” Ward said. “Having it outside the school day ensures the kids we do get are kids who are really passionate about it.”
Members of the engineering team are Ethan Eccles, Samantha Marcotte, Logan Wakley, Chris Strick, Brent Doerflinger, Joe Corbin and Amaranta Montserrate Anza Gonzales, with contributions made by Moises Suarez.