Mentoring Program Helps Kids Design Brain-Controlled Wheelchair

YWISE Effort

From left: Elvyn Escudero, teacher Tige Brown, Juana Tovar, all from Hillcrest High School, and Dr. Chandramallika Basak of UT Dallas worked together on a robotic wheelchair that can be controlled by brain waves. The device will be featured Saturday during the Earth Day celebration at the Dallas Arboretum.

Starting with some off-the-shelf transistors, motors and gyros, several seniors at Hillcrest High School are feverishly working in robotics teacher Tige Brown’s classroom long after most everyone else has gone home. They are racing to complete a wheelchair controlled by brain waves — a device that has been months in the making and will finally be featured Saturday at the Dallas Arboretum’s Earth Day celebration.

The students are part of UT Dallas’ Young Women in Science and Engineering Investigators program, which offers research and engineering experience to high school students with the aim of increasing their interest in science, technology, engineering and math. In its fourth year, the program is providing mentoring and support for more than 50 high school students from eight high schools across Dallas.

The Hillcrest High team has devised a way to propel and steer the chair with a computer program, so that the passenger can move in any direction without speaking and in the instant of a thought.

While holding the headset that directs the machine, Dr. Chandramallika Basak explains how the chair works: Brains emit electrical waves, and some of those waves, such as “alpha” and “beta” waves, are associated with cognition. The headset registers the waves and, through a computer program that the team has designed, classifies them and transmits signals via Bluetooth to steer the wheelchair.

Basak, an assistant professor at the School of Behavioral and Brain Sciences and the Center for Vital Longevity at UT Dallas, has volunteered to mentor the group as part of the program. In addition to being an authority on the impact of the video game training on cognition, she is a highly experienced computer programmer.

Earth Day Extravaganza

What: UT Dallas' School of Natural Sciences and Mathematics will "sprinkle" the Children's Adventure Garden with hands-on STEM activities for K-12 learning. Faculty and student groups will host STEM activities. Subjects will include brain science, marine science, robotics, chemistry and biology.

When: 10 a.m.-2 p.m. Saturday

Where: Children's Adventure Garden at the Dallas Arboretum

“Science and engineering challenges require a degree of creativity and the inspiration to try unorthodox methods to solve everyday problems,” Basak said. “It’s immensely rewarding to see young faces light up when manipulating technology and using their own imagination to power this device, which with some further refinement has the potential to help people.”

Senior Juana Tovar fastens an electrical wire within a plywood box that looks more like a splayed open PC filled with motherboards. Brown watches. People with fully functioning legs rarely think about their own locomotion, he said. His students have had to think about this project from a different perspective, he said. “And they are tackling this challenge largely on their own, with minimal direction from me.”

The success of the program and the teams’ completion of their projects depend on an advisory team of mentors composed of UT Dallas students and professors, professionals from industry, and dedicated high school science teachers, said Dr. Magaly Spector, professor in practice, assistant to the provost and the founder of the program.

This year, 10 teachers, 12 faculty members, 26 college students and 19 industry professionals from Texas Instruments, Ericsson and Cisco are participating as mentors for teams at different highs schools.

“It takes a village, as is often said, but the result is well-worthwhile: a budding crop of students who are inspired to pursue solutions and ideas in applied science and engineering to tackle the challenges of tomorrow,” Spector said.

Media Contact: The Office of Media Relations, UT Dallas, (972) 883-2155, [email protected].

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