Chandler Winchester, a nine-year-old boy with cerebral palsy, will soon get a new wheelchair-bicycle hybrid thanks in large part to the efforts of 12 students at Dulaney High School who are designing and building the device.
The students will design the chair — which has been dubbed a "chariot" — to help Chandler's parents transport Chandler, who was diagnosed with cerebral palsy at age two. The chariot will also be therapeutic for Chandler by stimulating his muscles and vision when he uses it.
Chandler's mother, Dana Winchester, said she hopes to use the chair to take Chandler on fun outings, such as walks around their Harford County neighborhood. If the family likes the device, they might even use it for day-to-day activities, she said. Currently, Chandler uses a custom wheelchair with his name embroidered on the back in red letters.
Dana and Chandler's father, Russell Winchester, applied for the device through the Baltimore-based nonprofit V-LINC, which connects volunteer engineers with families in need of special devices for people with disabilities. Cerebral Palsy is a neurological disorder that affects motor function.
In turn, V-LINC officials contacted Wanda Brown, an engineering teacher at Dulaney High School, whose class has participated in the nonprofit's Designing for Our Future program, in order to connect the Winchesters with the class so that the students might build Chandler's chariot. Designing for Our Future connects high school and college-aged engineers with families in need.
About a dozen students enrolled in Brown's senior engineering course began designing the chariot a month ago, and on Dec. 14 presented three options to Chandler's parents, as well as to the students' mentor for the project, Mark Rooths, a software engineer at aerospace and defense technology company, Northrop Grumman, who is volunteering his time to help with the project through V-LINC. Dana Winchester held Chandler in her arms as the students presented their prototypes.
The students plan to use PVC piping, aluminum, and a flexible polymer called lexan to build the chariot. Their budget for the project is $500 — the amount V-LINC reimburses the school for materials, according to Brown.
The fact that the item the students are engineering is going to help Chandler has acted as a huge motivator for them, Brown said.
"It gives us an incentive," added 17-year-old Dulaney senior Catherine Kansak, of Glen Arm, who is working on the project, adding that the project is the first she and her peers have designed and built that actually will be used in the real world.
Students often think of one idea and want to run with it, Brown said, so her role has largely been one of reminding students to brainstorm ideas and to consider multiple factors before moving ahead with one.
A 'wow' factor
Chandler lives in Aberdeen with his parents and attends the John Archer School, in Bel Air, a public school for students with severe disabilities.
His core is weak, requiring that his body and neck be supported, Dana Winchester said. Chandler lacks control of his limbs, his parents said, adding that it is also possible that his eyesight and hearing are impaired, though, because he cannot speak, it is hard to know to what degree.
Although Chandler uses a wheelchair, the "chariot" will offer additional features designed to be therapeutic for his condition.
The device will be hand-pushed and controlled from behind, like a stroller. It will have holds to strap Chandler's hands into, so that when he moves one hand the other will move, too, exercising those muscles. His feet will be strapped into what the students are calling a passive pedaling system — as the chariot moves it will also move Chandler's feet, which will be connected to pedals, providing additional exercise.
Kansak compared the effect as similar to someone being pushed on a fixed-gear bike; as the wheels move so do the pedals. The dashboard of the device will have lights, a feature Chandler's parents requested to provide him with additional stimulation.
The students developed three models, with accessibility and stability as their primary goals. On Dec. 14 they presented Chandler's parents and Rooths with the prototypes — a three-wheeled model, a model similar to a go-kart, and an A-frame model, with a look similar to that of a race car.
Chandler's parents and Rooths asked the students questions about the designs, including those on aspects that might be missing, while generally complimenting them on a job well done. Dana Winchester said they would like the students pursue the A-Frame model, which was considered the most stable and had other attractive features, such as a handlebar meant to look like a spoiler, as if the device really was a race car.
"We want this to be like 'Wow, did you see what that kid has?'" she said.
One of her primary concerns is how far the cabin of the chariot will be from the ground, as Chandler will need to be carried in and out of it, as well as ensuring that it has protection from sunlight. Rooths also questioned the students about what the chariot's clearance from the ground would be, adding that he is holding the students to the same design process he expects at Northrop Grumman.
"Overall, great presentation," he told them.
The students will refine the design and then build the device between now and April 10. After that, the Winchesters will take the chariot home for a week, during which the school is out for Easter break, and then bring it back, along with comments and requests for changes if needed. The final product will be ready in May.
When asked if the students think they will meet the May deadline, there was no doubt in 18-year-old Lutherville resident Alex Najera's answer.
"Absolutely, we'll have it built," he said.