Long Island high school wins grant to develop technology to help kids with autism

SMITHTOWN, Long Island (WABC) -- Thirteen high schools across the United States have been selected to receive a prestigious $10,000 grant celebrating outstanding innovation and invention, and one of them is from New York.

Smithtown High School West was selected as a Lemelson-MIT InvenTeam and will spend the next nine months developing a Personal Distance Monitor that is designed to help children with autism manage their personal space.

InvenTeams are teams of high school students, teachers, and mentors who receive grants to invent technological solutions to real-world problems.

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The initiative of the Lemelson-MIT Program aims to inspire a new generation of inventors to pursue creative lives and careers through invention.

"The InvenTeams program represents the future," said Leigh Estabrooks, invention education officer from the Lemelson-MIT Program. "We place an emphasis on STEM-focused projects to develop interest in these fields among youth. With InvenTeams, our primary goal is to foster high school students' passion for invention, in turn inspiring them to consider careers in science, technology, engineering or math."

Smithtown West's Dr. Joanne Figueiredo initiated the InvenTeam application process last spring and worked with the students over the summer to prepare the final proposal.

A prestigious panel of judges composed of educators, researchers, staff and alumni from MIT, as well as representatives from industry and former Lemelson-MIT Award winners, assembled virtually this fall and selected Smithtown High School West as one of this year's InvenTeam grantees.

Autism Spectrum Disorder affects approximately 1 in every 59 children in the US, and the InvenTeam members say their Personal Distance Monitor is a cost-effective solution to this problem.

"We plan on having it like the size of an AirPod, and then you can wear as like a necklace," student Aaquib Syed said. "It's very flexible. You can wear it as a belt, on your pocket, coat."

The idea was developed pre-COVID.

"We came up with an idea to be able to change the distance the sensor is able to reach, to be able to reach 6 feet social distancing," student Tyler Nagosky said.

Children with autism often have trouble understanding the idea of personal space and maintaining proper physical distance from others.

"We just want them to help understand social interaction with other kids and their peers," student Eric Pentecoste said.

It uses an IR sensor to alert the user when they are getting too close to another person.

"This device offers physical cues rather than verbal cues," student Liza Lleshaj said.

Student Rehan Mian said the grant money can go a long way.

"We can refine the function, maybe we can add stuff onto it," he said. "New ideas that come in with time."

The students are also developing an app which would allow teachers and parents to monitor a child's progress in terms of maintaining proper social space with others.

"I really hope it's going to help people," student Madeline Raeihle said.

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The Smithtown High School West InvenTeam will also work with Glen Meyerowitz, a graduate student at UCLA and former engineer at SpaceX, who will guide the students through the development of their invention.

"This is a remarkable group of students who have come together to solve an important problem faced by their peers in our school and other students across the country," principal John Coady said. "We are eager to support them."

The team will build a working prototype of their invention that is showcased at a technical review within the local community in February, and then again as a final prototype at EurekaFest, an invention celebration in June of 2021.

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