WASHINGTON – Nicole Shannon-Lass can remember working with her hands as long ago as age 7, when she helped her dad fix up his old Volkswagen Bug.
“I’ve always been interested in mechanics,” said Shannon-Lass, now 19, who grew up in Silver Spring and attended Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School.
Twelve years later, Shannon-Lass’ love of mechanics has not died out.
She and teammate Eric Leshay were at the Smithsonian Institution this week showing off their invention, a wheelchair designed to navigate through ice and snow. Theirs was one of 13 student inventions from around the country that were chosen for display at the National Museum of American History.
The event, titled March Madness for the Mind, is designed to “nurture a new generation of innovators.” Sponsored by the Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation, the display included inventions that were chosen from about 100 universities across the country.
It was their love of mechanics, coupled with an interest in the disabled, that motivated Shannon-Lass and Leshay to study assistive technologies at Hampshire College in Amherst, Mass.
They began work on the wheelchair there about eight months ago, as a project in their Design for Humans class. The pair decided to tackle the snow- going wheelchair from a list of ideas that disabled persons had suggested to their teacher would make their lives easier.
What they came up with was a kit that includes removable orange skids for the smaller front wheels of the wheelchair and white plastic paddles that snap on to the big wheels to help provide better traction and steering in the snow. The kit can help keep a disabled person from getting stuck or falling over in bad weather.
“Testing and testing it and then seeing it work is like seeing your baby walk for the first time,” Shannon-Lass said at the museum, occasionally distracted by passing wheelchairs.
The couple does not plan to stop here. Shannon-Lass and Leshay said they need to make five or six alterations before the winterization kit is ready to market.
But charging for the product once it is marketed will cause a moral dilemma for the team, they said.
“It is something that is really needed” in the disabled community, Shannon-Lass said, but “we need to make money to eat.”
The couple also spoke of the satisfaction of producing an invention that is truly needed in the community and their frustrations with inventions that are not so useful.
“We see so much in the way of design … but it is not always something essential,” Shannon-Lass said as she proudly glanced over her creation.
-30- CNS 03-10-00