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Students build robotic locker opener for disabled classmate

May 8, 2013 at 7:59 PM ET

Locker device
Pinckney Community High School
Wyatt Smrcka and Micah Stuhldreher observe their locker-opening device in action.

No rockets or egg drops for these students. A pair of seniors at a Michigan high school used their school's resources to build something more useful: a device that allows a disabled classmate to open his locker with a simple gesture.

Muscular dystrophy prevents Nick Torrance, a junior at Pinckney Community High, from accomplishing many everyday tasks, such as walking and opening his locker.

Nick has an assistant to help with such things, but Amy Uphouse, the school's occupational therapist, thought that being able to do something like open his locker on his own would be empowering.

"The students I work with needed something like a garage door opener with a garage door opener switch, just for lockers instead," she told NBC News in an email. But searching online turned up nothing that would meet their needs — everything needed a keycode or some other physical action, things her disabled students couldn't do.

Thinking about other projects in the works in the school's robotics class, Uphouse asked the robotics teacher, Sean Hickman, if he could help.

Install
Pinckney Community High School
Installing the controller on the disabled student's wheelchair.

Hickman, in turn, suggested that two of his most capable students take on the project come the new school year: Micah Stuhldreher and Wyatt Smrcka, who took first place in a national robotics competition last year. They wasted no time tearing the locker door off its hinges and getting to work.

Their teacher told NBC News in an email that building the device was far from elementary: "The students learned that a high degree of precision was required when fabricating the moving parts and mounting the electrical controls in order to produce a mechanism that was reliable." But after tinkering with it throughout the school year, it has improved substantially.

Locker device
Sean Hickman
Removed from its locker, the device shows itself to be clearly a serious piece of engineering.

"Micah and Wyatt worked diligently on personalizing the automated locker so Nick could get to the inside of his locker independently," Uphouse pointed out. A small computer replaced bulky relays inside the locker, and a key fob that was difficult for Nick to use became a sensor integrated with his wheelchair.

Now Nick can open and close his locker with ease — it may be a small thing, but his mother, Jean Torrance, told the Livingston Daily that it gives him a sense of independence.

As for Stuhldreher and Smrcka, they have received a small grant from the Society of American Military Engineers to improve the device and make more. But don't expect a robotic-locker kit to be put together by your kids any time soon; not every school has the resources or expertise to make it happen.

"We have the unique ability here at Pinckney to put something like this together due to the nature of our robotics and engineering program," Hickman said. Students may want to check the state of the shop before attempting such an ambitious project.

What happens next? Hopefully the system will proliferate. "I have two more students identified," said Uphouse. "By installing the automated locker, they too will be independent."

Devin Coldewey is a contributing writer for NBC News Digital. His personal website is coldewey.cc.

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