FORT WAYNE, Ind. — A road sign designed by a group of St. Joseph Central Elementary students might one day be the warning motorists see alongside highways and city streets cautioning them to drive carefully on slippery, snowy roads.
The concept behind the project was simple enough, the students explained: Find a way to warn drivers about road conditions, especially during the winter months when city streets can become slippery and dangerous.
Quinn Lymon suggested a road sign.
"Basically, it tells you what chance there is that there is going to be ice," he told The Journal Gazette (http://bit.ly/1g6qwiv ).
Quinn, a fourth-grader at St. Joe, is one of seven members of the school's Lego League team, the RoboTigers.
His teammates, fourth-graders Zachary Bishop, Alex Arruza and Jocelyn Hill and fifth-graders Kylee Burkhard, Kendal Brager and Keaton Grider, were selected for RoboTigers through an application and interview process at St. Joe.
First Lego League teams compete in a Tech Challenge where students must design, build and program Lego robots to compete on a 12-by-12-foot field against other teams.
The competition also includes a section about real-world applications where teams are asked to create a project that would benefit their community.
This year's contest topic was "Nature's Fury," and the RoboTigers decided to focus on a topic familiar to their home - ice storms.
Not only is it a fun project that gets students motivated to put on their thinking caps, it also teaches them what it's like to work as a team, said Jim Dettmer, Lego League team coach and an instructional coach at St. Joe.
"It's the real-world experience that we spend so much time talking about," Dettmer said. "That STEM (Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics) learning."
It took the students a few rounds of creative thinking to get their ice hazard warning sign ready to share with others.
Initially, the students planned to use thermochromic paint that would disappear and reappear on one of three heated plates revealing high, medium or low hazard-warning levels.
Sam Edwards of Burkhart Sign Systems helped students create a design for the sign.
After meeting with City Engineer Shan Gunawardena, they learned that generating the heat needed to make the paint change according to the road temperature would take a lot of energy - and the use of an LED display would be a better route to go.
The revised ice hazard-level sign will use an LED matrix to display the high, medium and low warnings, Dettmer said.
A thermal probe, which would be on the road near the sign, would take a reading of the road temperature and translate that to the controller, which is powered by a battery connected to a solar panel.
When temperatures are 32 to 38 degrees Fahrenheit, there is a low hazard-level reading, students said. When temperatures are 28 to 31 degrees, the hazard-level sign would read medium. A high hazard level would be projected when the temperature reads 27 degrees or below.
Gunawardena said he was impressed with the students' design and their plans to implement the sign throughout the city.
"This was a very interesting project that these kids came up with," he said.
Like other road signs, the students' design would have to go through an approval process before it can be added to the list of federally approved traffic-control devices, Gunawardena said.
"When you have a sign idea that is new, of course it has to be tested before we could install it on a roadway, . to make sure the message it sends out is accurate," he said.
And cost could also be a challenge, he added.
Gunawardena said a typical stop sign might cost the city about $150 to create, but something this complex could cost $1,000 or more.
To help offset the costs, students plan to work with the city to look for partners to include in the project.
"It's an interesting project, and we want to get some exposure for these kids," Gunawardena said. "They are very enthusiastic about the project, and it's very rewarding."
The remainder of the project, including the timeline when Fort Wayne drivers might see the prototype cropping up in city parking lots, is being fleshed out, Dettmer said.
"We're trying to work with the (school) district to tap into some of those resources that exist within the corporation," he said.
"We're still working through that to figure out the best way to go about it."
Information from: The Journal Gazette, http://www.journalgazette.net