St. Francis Students Create Gift Of Independence

March 1, 2018

By Sheila Julson

St. Francis High School students Georgia Hancock, Alex Reid, and Jake Bednarski pose with the robot they built to give toddler Vivian Johnson more independence. —Photo Jennifer Kresse

Toddler tethered to medical equipment assisted by their robot

Students in the St. Francis Robotics  (SFROBOTICS) program are using their skills and ingenuity to make life a little easier for a Menomonee Falls toddler Vivian Johnson, who was born with Chiari malformation. The condition, according to the Kids Health website, “causes the cerebellum — the part of the brain that controls coordination and muscle movement — to push into the space normally occupied by the spinal cord.”

SFRBOTICS is part one of the St. Francis School District STEM program. It was formed as a robotics club in 2008 under the guidance of science teacher Peter Graven. He quickly realized that student robotics could encompass more than robot competitions, although they do that, too. He formed ONEIGHTY, a program where students use technology to assist people and improve an aspect or aspects of their lives.

Graven said the students’ ONEIGHTY work is what likely got the attention of TMJ4 reporter Courtny Gerrish, who in November 2015 covered the plight of then 14-month old Baby Vivian Johnson and the struggle of her parents, Sarah and Clay Johnson, to persuade BadgerCare to cover a special bed designed for children with special needs.

Vivian Johnson lives in Menomonee Falls, Wisconsin with her parents Sarah and Clay Johnson, and her siblings Samuel and Lilly. —Courtesy Sarah Johnson

As Vivian grew, she defied her doctor’s glum prognosis that she would never walk or be very active.

Vivian’s life is dependent on her being continually tethered to her ventilator, oxygen tank, and other large, cumbersome medical devices. When she began to walk, Vivian’s parents needed to follow her with those life-sustaining devices. Graven said Vivian and her parents needed something that would enable her to be more independent so she could play where she wanted and when she wanted without her parents following her with the equipment. Enter robotics.

“We started communicating with Vivian’s family and began work on the project the beginning of last school year,” Graven said. Their goal was to create a robot that would carry the equipment, moving from place to place with Vivian.

Graven, and SFROBOTICS members, Alex Reid, a senior at St. Francis High School, and Georgia Hancock, a junior, explained the design and challenges behind “Vivian’s Bot” or “Fulplae” because it allows full access to play. Their solution would be a tiered shelf-robot that held her medical devices and followed her as she moved around. Graven said that the robot must be able to avoid obstacles in the house. At the same time, it must recognize that Vivian is not an obstacle nor are the tethers between her and the robot.

Reid said that they visited Vivian’s family’s home to examine the layout and to determine the robot’s dimensions and potential designs. Reid and Hancock, along with SFROBOTICS members Colton Feirer (Grade 11), Jacob Bednarski (Grade 12) and Angelina Fowler (Grade 10), actively worked on Fulplae. Eleventh graders Josh Wendlick and Ryan Putnam also contributed to the project.

The students designed and built the robot and wrote its software.

“You can search on MIT’s web page and find designs very similar, so we’ve basically asked high school kids to do graduate work,” Graven said. “It definitely upped their game.”

Milwaukee School of Engineering (MSOE) mentors donated their time and expertise to help customize the robot’s axle and frame.

Several local and nationwide companies and organizations stepped up and donated time or supplies to help SFROBOTICS students create Fulplae. Price Engineering, in Hartland, Wis., donated the purple metal used for the frame.

“The 80/20 metal is a material we never worked with before the Vivian project, but we wanted to use it because it’s durable,” Hancock said. “We just sent [Price] the file and let them know what we needed for the frame, and they sent us all the parts. We had to assemble it.”

Wauwatosa-based Interstate Batteries donated batteries to help power Fulplae, and Cross the Road Electronics, of Michigan, provided motorized controllers. Some plastic parts were donated by UW-Milwaukee, while other plastic parts were designed and printed by the SFROBOTICS team.

Once Fulplae was up and running, SFROBOTICS did test runs at the lab, which has tiled floors. But when they took the robot to Vivian’s home to test, the students were stymied by an unanticipated obstacle — carpeting.

“The machine doesn’t drive well on the carpet,” Reid explained. “It drove around here just fine on tiled floors but turning on carpet was a problem.” They also had to do some further tweaking to incorporate the tubing and cables that tether Vivian to her medical equipment.

‘We were doing test runs without the cabling, but when Vivian’s mother attached her to the device, we saw (these) further challenges,” Reid said. “It’s a learning process. If you’re not willing to make a mistake, you better not start any project.”

Hancock said those challenges motivated the students to improve the design. They initially used motors designed for 18 by 18 inch robots but realized that the robot required a more powerful motor. Fulplae is controlled by a radio, similar to a radio-controlled car, that her parents will operate.

Fulplae includes light detection and ranging (LIDAR) sensors. Many of its components were new to SFROBOTICS members. “It’s a path we’ve never been down before and a challenge,” Hancock said. “But if you’ve ever met this little girl, you cannot tell her not to walk. Her personality is amazing.”

Reid agrees that the project, while challenging, has been inspirational. “It’s impressive that she’s gotten this far. She’s defying doctors’ expectations,” he said. “I want her to be able to walk. It’s personal investment now and I’m rooting for her.”

Reid and Hancock are both St. Francis residents. Hancock developed an interest in robotics and mechanics as a sixth grader when she first saw robotics in action. She joined SFROBOTICS in eighth grade and never looked back. She plans to pursue a career in engineering.

Reid has already been accepted at MSOE, but even after receiving his high school diploma, he intends to continue working with SFROBOTICS as a mentor. Since he was a child, he enjoyed taking things apart and putting them back together. He and his dad, Dan Reid, once disassembled and reassembled a robot. His mother, Lisa Stika, also encouraged his robotics pursuits.

“Our robotics club has made it to state FTC (FIRST Tech Challenge, a statewide robotics tournament) every year since I’ve been involved, so it’s been awesome to be able to compete in that,” Hancock said. “I enjoy being a part of the team, and Mr. Graven has been great.”

Reid enjoys the problem solving behind robotics, as well as the networking with other competitors and representatives from companies that support robotics. “We meet cool people at competitions, like the people at Interstate Batteries who were invited to judge our junior FLL (FIRST LEGO League) competition,” he said. “We didn’t expect them to have an interest in robotics after they donated batteries, but they came to other competitions and helped us out.”

St. Francis High School students Jake Bednarski, Georgia Hancock, and Alex Reid absorb the information their robotics coach Peter Graven dispenses. —Photo Jennifer Kresse

Graven works with LimbForge and E-Nable, nonprofit organizations dedicated to providing 3-D printed, wearable prosthetic devices for people with malformed hands or missing digits.

His SFROBOTICS students use open-source designs with their 3-D printers to make plastic hands with hinged fingers that can grasp and pick up items. The plastic hands are custom-sized, cast from plaster molds made of a client’s hand. The prosthetics can be designed and printed in different colors or with a superhero character or sports logos.

SFROBOTICS also built underwater ROVs (remotely operated vehicles) to compete in the Wisconsin Regional MATEROV competition as well as in SEAPERCH competitions. The students are working with the members of the board of directors of the Wisconsin Maritime Museum on a number of projects and plan to make ROV dives to explore local Wisconsin shipwrecks.

The Johnson family will not need to pay for Fulplae because the SFROBOTICS students created it for her as their gift.

Reid and Hancock invite people to visit the club and see what SFROBOTICS is doing. He said they’re willing to help other schools launch their own robotics programs. They meet in lab space at Deer Creek Intermediate School in St. Francis. The robotics program encompasses Grades 4 through 12.

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To follow Vivian’s progress:

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One Comment on "St. Francis Students Create Gift Of Independence"

  1. Bert Kelley on Fri, 2nd Mar 2018 6:12 am 

    What an inspiring story! How nice that these kids are giving so much to members of the community and to the community at large, and that the program encompasses grades 4 through 12 gives kids an incredible potential 8 year opportunity to explore and learn.

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