• Read more about the Nerd Herd.
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Persistence and ingenuity may pay off for nine Iowa middle school girls who call themselves the “Nerd Herd.”
The team of girls from Titan Hill Intermediate School in Council Bluffs invented an award-winning device to help elderly and disabled people get around.
Now they're working on getting a patent for the combination wheelchair and walker they call the “Walk n' Wheel.”
With two easy steps, the lightweight titanium wheelchair converts to a walker, so users no longer have to carry both items or have another person assist them.
“It's exciting to think that something a couple of middle school students thought up could change other people's lives,” said Nerd Herd member Anna Ford, 13.
The other Nerd Herd members are: Meredith Ellis, Leah Pitts, Madison Davis, Hannah Dunlop, Allison Ryan, Addison Smith, Jayden Cavanaugh and Caylee Will.
The girls were inspired by the challenges of a fellow student with cerebral palsy and the struggles of one girl's great-uncle, who late in life had difficulty getting to and from his beloved Creighton University basketball games.
They came up with the Walk n' Wheel while competing in the annual First Lego League challenge. The three-part challenge involves a Lego robot competition, exhibition of core values like teamwork, and a project that doesn't involve Lego building blocks.
Their coach, Cheryl Ryan, a fifth-grade teacher at Titan Hill, said this year's project involved creating an innovative solution to a problem senior citizens face.
Ryan and her daughter, Allison, 13, had witnessed the frustration of Allison's great-uncle Bill Gress, who died last year at 77. The Council Bluffs dentist and avid community supporter suffered limited mobility for several years and faced a dilemma when he went to a basketball game.
“He always liked to go to the Creighton basketball games,” Allison said, “but where his parking spot was, he had to walk a long way to get to his seat. So he had to always take his wheelchair.”
But along some parts of the route, a walker would have been more practical, she said.
The girls did their research, even examining an American Girl doll wheelchair during their initial brainstorming.
They partnered with Mobilis, a Bluffs medical equipment firm, to build their prototype.Mobilis provided a wheelchair and modified it as the girls directed, said Colleen Brabec, company president.
“We started with a basic chair, but by the time we were done, it was quite a bit different,” Brabec said.
The wheelchair seat folds up, allowing the user to step between the wheels, gripping the arm rests. The girls had to install a stabilizer bar and hand brakes that operate like those on a bicycle. The whole thing is waterproof, so it can go in the shower.
Brabec, whose company serves Iowa and Nebraska through warehouses in Des Moines and Omaha, said the product has enough unique features that it may win a patent.
“I do think they have a shot,” she said. “There are a lot of items out there and people trying to design new things all the time to make life easier and keep people in their homes. But this one is just a little bit different. It goes after a little different segment.”
Cheryl Ryan said the hardest thing the girls had to figure out was the brake system, which needed to be convenient for both standing and sitting.
“They actually took the invention to a nursing home and had a couple of very brave volunteers agree to try it out and give feedback,” she said. “That's where we ran into issues of making the height adjustable for people of different heights.”
The girls conquered that problem by making the arm rests adjustable, she said.
The girls' invention placed runner-up in the regional First Lego League competition last winter. That boosted their confidence, and they entered it in the annual Invent Iowa contest, a program of the Belin-Blank Center for gifted education at the University of Iowa. It won first place.
Patenting is a pricey endeavor, running as much as $10,000, and the girls are looking for sponsors to help cover the costs, Cheryl Ryan said.
If they get a patent, and the product sells, the girls plan to divide profits nine ways and use the money for college.
Meanwhile, the girls continue to refine the chair.
Their work ethic and determination have impressed Brabec.
“I think they're going to go far,” Brabec said. “These are kids that would prefer to stay after school and work on a neat project than just go home, hang out and play video games.”