McKay High School sophomores Isabel Mejia, left and Jazmin Morales Rodriguez show off a 3D printer to students at a science fair at First Baptist Church in Salem (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)
By 5 p.m. on a Friday, most McKay High School students have gone home or are outside playing sports.
But in a windowless classroom near the back of the school, half a dozen students were hard at work tweaking designs for an adaptive cup they’re building to help people who have trouble swallowing.
They have a month to prepare for a showcase at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where they’ll present their invention alongside 14 other high school teams selected from across the country.
Katrina Hull, the McKay engineering teacher, said her students are working nearly every day, often until 8 p.m.
“This is like our second home," Hull said. "We haven’t been smart enough to build bunk beds."
Sophomore Lesly Rojas pulled up plans on a projector and went over them with Chau Doan, a freelance engineer who’s helping the team. Their challenge is controlling how much water comes out of the cup - enough to drink, but not so much that it poses a safety risk.
“It regulates the water flow, but not enough that a patient can actually choke,” Rojas said.
Math and engineering teacher Katrina Hull, right, leads McKay's InvenTeam (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)
Like her classmates, Rojas is eager for the June trip to MIT.
For Rojas, whose family hasn’t traveled, it feels like a chance to see what her future as an engineer could look like.
“It’s like saying ‘You could be there one day,’” she said.
The school’s team was one of 15 InvenTeams selected for a $10,000 grant from MIT and the Lemelson Foundation to develop technology to solve real-world problems.
They settled on an adaptive cup after talking with local occupational therapists, who said there weren’t good options on the market for many of their clients trying to build lip and mouth strength so they’re able to drink.
“We wanted to let people know this is a serious problem,” said sophomore Chau Nguyen, who’s been managing the grant funds for the team. “If you can’t swallow, you can’t drink, you can’t eat.”
Having difficulty swallowing can be caused by other medical conditions, including Parkinson’s disease, muscular dystrophy and some forms of cancer.
Doan, the freelance engineer, talked about building the team a “Chug Bot” - a robot to test water flow and suction for different designs.
He acknowledged that flying cross-country with a suitcase full of wires and circuit boards might pose a problem, but as an engineer, he’s used to it.
“Airport security loves me,” he joked to the team.
McKay senior Gabriel Maza takes apart the electronics in one of the team's proposed adaptive cup designs. (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)
The 11-student team is mostly sophomores who took Hull’s honors geometry class last school year. Hull had been working with a group of older McKay students who developed a way to recycle common plastic waste into the raw material used by 3D printers.
That team won a statewide invention contest in the fall of 2017 against college groups. But Hull said her freshmen students were upset by the amount of time she was on the road working with those inventors and wanted their own project.
When that contest was over, Rojas approached Hull and asked, “What do you have for me?” That’s when the group found the MIT program and applied for a grant, which they won.
Gabriel Maza is one of two seniors on the invention team. He’s used the grant as a chance to explore electronics, building many of the circuit boards and motors the team is testing in cup designs.
Maza said he’s always been interested in engineering and joined the school’s Mathematics, Engineering and Science Achievement club when it started two years ago. This year has shown him that he wants to focus on electrical engineering.
“I’m a lot more certain now what I want to do,” he said.
With just over a month before they leave for MIT, the team is working to find ways to test their invention.
Hull has spent evenings in the classroom, bringing in her husband and friends to help with the project. Despite the extra hours, she always sounds full of energy when taking through an idea with a student or ordering dinner for the group.
“I’ve always loved building and tinkering and playing around with stuff,” she said, gesturing to her classroom, which is covered in tools and gadgets.
“She really cares because she doesn’t take any prep periods,” Rojas said.
McKay sophomore Lesly Rojas explains a circuit board to a younger student. (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)
The team has raised about $17,000 to cover the cost of sending 11 students and three adults to MIT, but still needs about $13,000 toward the trip. Hull is optimistic they’ll get there, and recently bought plane tickets.
"We're super grateful for the support we've received up until this point," Hull said. They're talking to community members who might be able to help with the rest of the cost and working on a fundraising video, she said.
Rojas said she’s enjoyed being part of a group showing people McKay is more than the labels that are often slapped on the school: high poverty or overcrowded.
“McKay is not seen as a good school,” she said. “It’s bringing awareness.”
Reporter Rachel Alexander: [email protected] or 503-575-1241.
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