Portuguese students win trip to NASA with wheelchair project

Posted 17/07/2020 by Sónia Reis

Earlier this year, a final school year project to develop a wheelchair controlled by head movements won five Portuguese high school students the trip of a lifetime to NASA. The Telepathy Physics project used motion sensors connected to the robotic vehicle Rover and took first prize in a national science competition initiated by the University of Lisbon. “The students were so motivated to help their fellow pupils with disabilities,” said teacher Alexandre Gomes. “At the same time, this real-world problem also helped deepen their interest in maths.”

Students put in extra hours
Every year, Alexandre Gomes, a T³ Europe physics and chemistry teacher, initiates a STEM project as an extracurricular activity for final year students at the Oliveira Junior School in São João da Madeira. “Every project starts with a brainstorming session where the students share ideas,” he said. “This group decided to think about ways of supporting handicapped students at our school. Once we decided to focus on the wheelchair solution, the idea that the project could also contribute to wider society motivated them even more. The students did most of the work outside school hours at the same time as they were preparing for their final exams. Since they had no experience with coding, the first step was to teach them how to code. In total, we spent one to two hours per week for 12 weeks working on the project in school itself, and the students put in extra hours.”

Algorithm to control robotic vehicle
In addition to learning how to code, the students researched existing solutions for operating electric wheelchairs. “They focused on situations in which the person could only make head movements,” said Gomes. “Some of the options they found, such as using an object held in the mouth, a helmet or eye movements had disadvantages. Controlling a wheelchair with head movements came out to be the better option. Next, they had to develop an algorithm to control a robotic vehicle, which was actually the core of the project. The students used the TI-Nspire™ CX Ecosystem, and the coding was done in TI-Basic. They thought it would be very difficult, but they had it up and running in no time, and the results were impressive.”

Head movements are very intuitive
The students secured two motion sensors to a desk chair and managed to translate the signals received by the sensors into movements made by the robotic vehicle. “In the video you can see that we are testing this with the Rover connected by wires,” said Gomes. “So, controlling the Rover is like controlling a wheelchair motor. We realised that head movements are very intuitive; they have the same effect as a joystick. If the person in the wheelchair wants to go to the right, they would have to move their head to the right.”

Science and technology for a better world
In total, 51 science and engineering projects were submitted to the 2019 edition of the FCT NOVA Challenge, the only Portuguese competition by a public higher-education institute. Gomes is very proud of the OJ=mC2 team for winning the first prize in June. The trip to the U.S., however, has not been able to go ahead because of COVID-19, although there is still a chance it might happen next year. In fact, the most important result has been the realisation that science and technology can make the world a better place, according to Gomes. He said: “Developing a solution for their disabled peers has placed learning into context. This idea planted a seed, and who knows what these students will develop in five to 10 years when they have graduated from university. I would like to integrate these types of STEM projects into the regular curriculum, but this remains a long-term goal for us.”

Go the extra mile
Does Gomes have any tips for other teachers? “Our school is quite privileged since we are well equipped with Texas Instruments technology,” he said. “At the same time, you need engaged teachers who have the knowledge and potential to take STEM projects forward. Also, if you can, take part in competitions! Competitions motivate the school, the teachers and the students to innovate and devise projects like this and go the extra mile. During the wheelchair project I watched my students develop and grow in confidence. And helping students to grow is why I go to work every day.”

Watch a video presentation of the project (in Portuguese) here.