Developers of high-tech devices to help the blind and visually impaired may soon be facing stiff competition from an unlikely quarter – a team of six freshmen at the Sherman Oaks Center for Enriched Studies.

The students at the Grade 4-12 magnet school recently got the go-ahead from L.A. Unified to develop a prototype of their invention, a baseball cap equipped with ultrasonic sensors that can detect and warn the wearer when an obstacle is in their path.

“We are super-excited to get to build a prototype,” said team member Adam Murtagh. “We were really into this idea and now after waiting a while to see what would happen, we get to take our idea and make it into something real.”

The project is being developed in partnership with the District’s Facilities Services Division, which last fall invited schools to submit proposals for products that would help make L.A. Unified buildings more accessible to handicapped or disabled individuals.

SOCES design team member Ava Basileo, left, says she is eager to get started building a prototype of her team’s design of a baseball cap with ultrasonic sensors.

“Our District has a need to provide facilities that are accessible for all,” said Chief Facilities Executive Mark Hovatter. “It occurred to me that we have hundreds of schools with robotics and STEM programs (focused on science, technology, engineering and math) and a lot of really bright people behind them. Why not leverage those to help us research and design new ideas to help us solve this problem?”

As the start of the 2016-17 year, Hovatter’s team invited schools to submit proposals for products that would make District structures more accessible. SOCES was among the schools whose students answered the call.

David Hicks, who teaches science and engineering at SOCES, said the assistive technology project gives students the opportunity to apply their learning to tackle real-life issues.

“These are students who have a real curiosity about their world,” Hicks said. “They are seeking new ways to use the skills and tools we provide to problem solve, generate new ideas and improve on some old ones.”

Hicks said the students participate in a lot of competitions and programs that enable them to showcase their work beyond the classroom. They will be participating in an upcoming statewide robotics challenge and providing a demonstration this month at the Magnet Schools of America conference, which this year is hosted by L.A. Unified.

“This was an opportunity for the students to take their ideas onto a broader stage and before an audience who can help put their ideas into practice,” he said. “When the students found out about it they immediately got to work.”

Team member Ganaka Wijesundara said sample ideas provided by Facilities staff members inspired them to consider new concepts that haven’t been tried before.

“We started brainstorming ways we could help people who are blind navigate around our campus, like using geo-data to know where they were,” he said. “Then we came up with another idea.”

“We turned to ultrasonic sensors and thought maybe put them in something they could wear –  like a belt,” said his teammate, Quinn Ward. “Then we thought maybe their hands might get in the way of the belt, so we decided, why not put sensors higher where it could create a better picture of what was around them?”

The team assigned roles according to their strengths, some focusing on coding and others on building. They were invited to give a formal presentation to the District’s engineering team. They received feedback and refined their ideas to come up with a precise design including a list of parts and materials needed. Last week, they learned their proposal had been accepted to move to a prototype phase.

The SOCES design team, from left, Quinn Ward, Ganaka Wijesundara, Ava Basileo, Peter Sarkhoshian, Kyle Chiu and Adam Murtagh.

Hovatter explained that through this process, his division is willing to invest in any idea that is feasible and addresses the idea of facilities accessibility.

“There really are no limits to how many schools and students can by involved in this,” he said. “We need to invest in solutions that help us meet our goals and requirements, so why not invest in ways that better outfit our schools and expand students’ educational opportunities?”

The SOCES team will soon attend another session with Facilities personnel when they will get details about the time and materials allotted to build their prototype.

“They have full access to all of our shops and engineers,” Hovatter explained. “They can work side-by-side with our professionals using the trial-and-error that often accompanies these types of projects that any of our vendors would use. The advantage is that while they’re learning these skills and principles in the classroom, they are simultaneously gaining hands-on experience in product development.”

Because SOCES is a span school, many of the team members have already been working together for a number of years. Principal Martin Price says this puts them at a strong advantage.

“These students already know how to function well as a team,” he said. “They are well aware of one-another’s strengths and interests.”

Price says that because product development can sometimes take years, expanding beyond the length of a school year, his students are coming into the exercise at a good time.

“They are in the ninth grade now, so they still have time to see their idea develop into something real,” he said. “It’s terrific that they will be here for a few more years and have the chance to follow their ideas into the next phases. We can’t wait to see how far their ideas will go.”