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FIRST Robotics Team Engineers Adaptive Tech for Kids with Disabilities

In addition to building competition robots, students on the FIRST Penn Robotics team are also dedicated to crafting adaptive technology to help children with disabilities like this Hulk costume for a boy with a wheelchair.
Oct 24, 2023

Mark Ruffalo, the actor renowned for his portrayal of The Hulk in Marvel films, catapulted FIRST Robotics Team 135 – Penn Robotics into the national spotlight in 2019 when he tweeted about their extraordinary creation: a Hulk-themed wheelchair costume complete with motion, lights, and sound, enabling a young boy with cerebral palsy to experience the joy of trick or treating like never before. 

However, that’s just one of several people that the Mishawaka, Indiana-based FIRST team has helped since it began developing assistive technology (AT) in 2015. The first project was to design and 3D print a fully functional prosthetic arm for a young girl who was born without a right forearm. The following year, the team made a rolling desk for a boy who needed help with walking and carrying his speech assistance device.   

In 2017, they partnered with ATMakers, a non-profit that introduces makers to people in need of AT. Together, they launched Mission to Engineer, a program to make AT for people in the community who didn’t have the resources to acquire it for themselves. Soon they were being invited every year to present their projects at the Assistive Technology Industry Association Conference. 

Benefiting real people 

Like all FIRST Robotics teams, Penn Robotics still designs and builds robots for FIRST competitions, but developing AT is an equal passion for the students. 

“Seeing the direct impacts that my work and the work of my teammates has on the lives of individuals is an experience that not many have,” says Isaac Gould, the senior managing the Mission to Engineering projects for the 2022-23 school year. “It has positively changed my outlook on using my abilities for good and helping other people.” 

The team has an especially impressive technology lab complete with manual lathes, mills, grinders, and sanders, as well as professional welders, a CNC lathe/mill, a casting furnace, 3D printers, a CNC plasma cutter, and a toolroom mill. 

Donations and sponsorships allow the team to buy new and used equipment. To help bring more manufacturing technology into the hands of young people, AMT – The Association for Manufacturing Technology has donated more than $175,000 to FIRST teams (including Penn Robotics) and STEM programs. The money is raised by its Miles for Manufacturing 5K run/walk fundraising events held at IMTS –The International Manufacturing Technology Show and AMT’s annual MFG Meeting

The development process 

The team, led by coaches Kyle Marsh and Scott Shelhart, design and develop new AT using the same general process as any professional engineering team. For example, to begin a new project for an 11-year-old wheelchair-bound boy named Braden, the team first met with the boy’s family, occupational therapist, and pediatric therapist to learn about Brandon’s biggest challenges: opening doors and doing homework independently.   

After research about existing technologies, the team used CAD/CAM to design concepts: an adjustable, lightweight tray that folds into the wheelchair’s armrest and a door opening device that uses a suction cup mounted to a cord that Braden can manipulate with a crank.   

Based on each team member’s skills, Gould assigned each person to build prototype parts made from machined metal and 3D-printed resins. They had Braden test the prototypes and then made final adjustments. The enhance the robustness of the final products, carbon fiber and fiberglass reinforcement was incorporated into the resin parts.  

Future manufacturing pros 

Shelhart knows the Penn Robotics students leave high school with a broad set of skills to give them an advantage toward a manufacturing career someday. Gould, for example, has just started his first year at Purdue University studying biochemistry. 

“Isaac can take the project management skills he learned from Mission to Engineering and eventually become a production manager at a pharmaceutical factory, or something like that,” Shelhart says. “He’s got a great resume already. If I had a business, I’d hire him right now.” 

Caden Keller, the mechanical lead for Mission to Engineering for two years, has taken his technical talents to a new level since graduating from high school this past spring. Keller, who designed Braden’s door opening device, has just started his first year studying mechanical engineering at the University of Northern Illinois. 

“I first joined the FIRST Robotics program for the robots and trips across the country, and to meet new people and learn new things. But in the Mission to Engineer program, I found that my abilities could be used for a much greater purpose. It’s been a defining moment in my education and my career path to become an engineer, but it’s also had a positive impact on my personal life.” 

While several children who received AT have been the beneficiaries of the Mission to Engineering program, the Penn Robotics team members themselves have gained skills that will last them a lifetime. 

“There’s a lot of problem solving and making mistakes that go on here, and they learn so much from the concept to final product,” Shelhart notes. “They're learning to think faster, and in the industry, you want people who can think on their feet and look at things from a different perspective. These students chose to do these extra projects beyond the assigned school work, and that has made them more well-rounded people.” 

Find Inspiration at Student Summit at IMTS 2024   Many FIRST teams visit the Smartforce Student Summit at IMTS 2024 — one of the world’s largest displays featuring hands-on opportunities for young people to explore careers in advanced manufacturing by working with 3D printers, high-tech metal cutting machines, programming and design software, robotics, automation, and more. Check it out at IMTS.com/Smartforce.  

Kathy Keyes Webster
Managing Editor – Content
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