Baruch Campus High School students design gadget that vacuums subway

The Baruch InvenTeam with their prototype (left to right) Ivan Chang, Carmen Li, Kevin Zhang, Long Wang Lin, Wendy Ni, Xiao Hui Zheng, Conan Lin, Sherry Ou Yang, William Chung and Queena Chiu (behind the prototype, left to right) Elton Zhang and Tony Long (Photo by Maria Rocha-Buschel)

The Baruch InvenTeam with their prototype (left to right) Ivan Chang, Carmen Li, Kevin Zhang, Long Wang Lin, Wendy Ni, Xiao Hui Zheng, Conan Lin, Sherry Ou Yang, William Chung and Queena Chiu (behind the prototype, left to right) Elton Zhang and Tony Long (Photos by Maria Rocha-Buschel)

By Maria Rocha-Buschel

A group of college-bound seniors at Baruch College Campus High School will soon be heading to MIT to present a detachable rubbish vacuum that they designed and built for use in the subways.

What they came up with is an alternative that they hope the MTA will use to keep the subway tracks clear. The agency currently has entire work trains dedicated to vacuuming up garbage on the tracks, but the prototype that the students have created would instead attach onto the MTA’s existing work trains and, they say, would require less maintenance.

To create the prototype that they primarily worked on in the cramped back section of a classroom, they used motors and filters from actual vacuums, but added on features to make it semi-automatic. The device, which was built on a smaller scale than the real thing to cut down on expenses, has light sensors on the top so it kicks on when it pulls into the station and turns off when back inside the tunnel to conserve energy. Their version operated while plugged into the wall, but in practice the vacuum would draw energy from the third rail, which would also make it more powerful.

One of the challenges the students said that they had with the project was just on getting started.

“At the beginning of the process, it was hard getting help from people,” said Kevin Zhang, who added that they were ultimately able to get guidance from the MTA. The students also got assistance from Con Edison, which helped them in developing the pneumatic system to open and close the vacuum’s door.

Faculty advisor Elisabeth Jaffe said that she and Melody Kwan, a Spanish teacher who also helped guide the students through the process, primarily helped the students work with the grant when they were initially applying, as well as worked with them through the design process and connecting them with mentors.

“Now they’re more self-sufficient,” Jaffe said. “We got them started, and when something new comes up we’ll give them a little more help. It’s been a good experience for life after high school.”

Xiao Hui Zheng demonstrates how the light sensors work on the prototype.

Xiao Hui Zheng demonstrates how the light sensors work on the prototype.

The science-minded students, all of whom said they were interested in pursuing some kind of engineering once in college, seemed to appreciate the real-world advice: many of the students noted that the most difficult part of the process wasn’t even science-related.

“I think the hardest thing was dealing with time management,” Zhang said. “We were working on the project and also dealing with the college process, finals and midterms, all while working on the project every day from 3 to 6 after school.”

Despite the stress and loss of free time (including a number of school breaks devoted to building the prototype), the students said that the end result of the project was worth it.

“Seeing a big project from beginning to end was rewarding,” said William Chung. “Especially when the end was something tangible.”

Meanwhile, even though their engineering project is finished, they still have their work cut out for them.

Their project was made possible through the Lemelson-MIT InvenTeam program that awarded them a $10,000 grant last October, but the funds are only enough to send six of the 12 students in the group to the EurekaFest event in June. Jaffe, who’s also a math teacher at the school, said that the students are doing everything they can to raise the additional $4,000 needed for the rest of their teammates.

The students began brainstorming for the project at the end of their junior year last year and to apply for the grant, they had to come up with the solution to a problem.

“We all take the train every day so we decided to take on a problem that affects us,” Carmen Li said.

Anyone interested in donating to help the students fund their trip should contact Kwan at kwan.melody@bcchsnyc.net.

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