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Collaboration by Schenectady ARC, Union College mixes engineering, compassion in Rotterdam

Collaboration by Schenectady ARC, Union College mixes engineering, compassion in Rotterdam

Student designs, builds irrigation system for greenhouse that serves the disabled
Collaboration by Schenectady ARC, Union College mixes engineering, compassion in Rotterdam
Union College student Kim Gu, left, talks to her professor James Hedrick on Friday.
Photographer: Peter R. Barber

ROTTERDAM — Plants, shrubbery and assorted greenery aren’t the only things growing in the Schenectady ARC’s greenhouse off Hamburg Street.

Knowledge and happiness expands too, as the people ARC serves work, learn, do therapeutic activity or just relax there. More recently, a Union College student and her faculty adviser have been devising a system to keep the plants moist and growing.

During a symposium Wednesday in Albany, the automated greenhouse watering system engineered by Lisa Gu and professor James Hedrick will be judged with 20 other systems built as part of Cultivating Resources for Employment with Assistive Technology.

CREATE, as it is known, is an effort by the New York State Industries for the Disabled to recruit student inventors and tinkerers to make devices that will ease entry to the workforce for disabled people, whose unemployment rate is significantly higher than the general population.

Top prizes of $15,000, $10,000 and $5,000 will go to those creations judged best, and the prize money divided among the students, schools and partner organizations associated with the winning projects.

Donna Vincent, horticulture coordinator at the Schenectady ARC, said the ARC’s Maple Ridge day site off Hamburg Street serves about 100 people, all of whom have access to the greenhouse, as do numerous outside agencies that bring in clients. Some work and learn there, she said.

“Some just sit and enjoy the atmosphere,” she added.

And a fine atmosphere it was this past Friday. 

As wind-whipped snowflakes swirled outside, the earthy smell of soil and new plant life filled the greenhouse, which was warm like a spring afternoon.

Gu, who is in her final year at Union, is majoring in computer engineering but aspires to medical school rather than engineering. That said, she hopes to practice medicine with the next wave of robotics and other cutting edge technology. And she enjoyed the physical work of setting up a system of soil moisture sensors and solenoid-actuated valves to mist the young plants enough that they aren’t parched but not so much that they get saturated and prone to disease or rot. 

The troubleshooting and tinkering went well beyond the microcircuitry of computer engineering, and she relied on Hedrick’s experience for some of it.

“I enjoyed dabling a little bit in each area. I learned a lot from just putting together this watering system,” she said.

“Because I’m interested in medicine and helping others, the idea of helping disabled people get employed and do these kinds of things that they wouldn’t be able to do otherwise really appealed to me.”

She’s now working on a touch pad with picture icons so that people with more restrictive disabilities can use the system.

Gu’s not a gardener herself, but her father in New Jersey is, and he invited her to recreate her prototype in their back yard.

Corey Heritage of NYSID said other inventions have included a device to help blind people afix price tags to clothing at a Goodwill store and a virtual reality system to help autistic people navigate their way to job interviews and work sites.

There is hope of raising awareness of the needs and potential of the disabled through the CREATE program, he said, but also the excitement of seeing what emerges in the process.

“We would love these to be able to be transferred to and actually work in some of our non-profit agencies to actually increase employment,” Heritage said. “But at a minimum, it allows for some innovation and allows for people to understand what’s going on.”

“Every once in a while you’ll see something that these students develop that is a whole new paradigm for the way something can be done,” added Brian Bateman of NYSID.

Hedrick, a professor in Union College’s Department of Electrical, Computer and Biomedical Engineering, said there’s a joy of discovery and accomplishment for all involved: Gu, the people at ARC and even him.

“You should see their faces when we test it with them,” he said. “They just light up, because they’re always being told, ‘No I’m sorry, you can’t work this.’ But they come over and they push this and the water comes on. 

“And we all need to feel that — Lisa and I need to feel that. You should have seen us when we turned it on and it worked! After all the problems we had! This is a human quality, not just people with certain disabilities.”

As a professor, Hedrick likes CREATE because it’s a real-world application of concepts that students have learned for four years, with problem-solving mixed in and late client revisions of specifications to better mirror the business world.

“We at Union encourage students to do something that is real, not just a simulation, but actually build something that works,” he said of the annual senior project. “I’m particularly interested in applications that benefit people, so I encourage students to work with me on projects like this.”

The greenhouse contains thousands of plants in every stage of their life cycle, from the newest sprouts to mature specimens brought in from Albany International Airport for rehab because they are sick or damaged.

Schenectady ARC Executive Director Kirk Lewis said the greenhouse serves as a training ground for people hoping to enter the workforce, not just in horticulture but in areas such as retail. The ARC sells plants and vegetables grown in the greenhouse, and sometimes finished floral arrangements.

“It helps them be more involved with the whole process,” he said. “We start from seeds, we grow the plants, they go down to the farmer’s markets, they sell. If they are removed from one part of it, it becomes less of a real thing for them.”

Gu’s irrigation system will help with this, Lewis said.

“That technology gives them a little more control and a little more involvement in the whole process. When they’re coming in day in and day out and watching things grow … that’s a real sense of accomplishment.

“It’s not for everyone, but there are some people it just means the world to.”

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