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2015 June 26 - 04:55 pm

Wisconsin College Students Aid in Construction of Robotic Fishing Pole

Collaboration with Middle Schoolers Allows Quadriplegic Man To Go Fishing

 

MOSINEE, Wis. (AP) — Life rarely presents a single moment representing the fulfillment of creativity, hard work and cooperation of a large group of vastly different people, but it did on a recent morning at a fishing pier on the Wisconsin River.

It happened shortly before noon in Mosinee’s River Park, when former Mosinee High School Principal Jim DeBroux, who was paralyzed from his neck down in a 2009 fall from a ladder, used a baton designed to be used by his mouth to push a button. That button set in motion another specially designed piece of equipment, a one-of-a-kind robotic fishing rod. The rod reared back, hesitated a moment, and then cast a hook, worm and bobber into the river about 20-feet away.

As casts go, it was unremarkable. But for DeBroux and the crowd that gathered at the park for the occasion — a design and production team consisting of Mosinee Middle School and Northcentral Technical College students, their teachers, and a crowd of about 30 friends, parents and educators — it was a beautiful thing.

“I can’t tell you what this means to me,” DeBroux said, his voice catching from the rush of emotion. “Um, for those of you don’t know, my injury is such that I can’t feel anything below my shoulders. And I never thought this day would come….I can’t tell you what sense of freedom this gives me.”

It all started with a question, asked of DeBroux more than a year ago. DeBroux, who left his job as principal after his injury, vowed that he would find a way to keep teaching kids. He’s done that in part by giving presentations at local schools about what it’s like to live with paralysis. He was taking questions after a presentation for Mosinee students when one asked him a stark question: “What do you miss the most?” The question “came out of the blue, and it caught me off guard,” DeBroux said. “I could have said anything, golf or travel….But my dad and I used to fish together, and I started when I was kid, with my grandpa and dad. (Fishing provided) some of the most rewarding times in my life, with its solitude and peace.”

His answer stirred everyone in the audience that day, but Maggie Hattlestad, then a 13-year-old seventh-grader, was particularly upset by the thought that DeBroux would never be able to do again something he loved so much. She walked away in tears.

Dave Masterson, a technicaleducation teacher at Mosinee Middle School, noticed Maggie”s reaction, and thought that something that could move a young teenager so deeply also could provide stimulus to learn. Masterson and his colleague, Kathy Brandon, a gifted-and-talented teacher at the middle school, teamed up to offer a challenge to the nine GT students in Brandon’s math class: Design a piece of equipment that would allow DeBroux to fish from his wheelchair.

Once the two educators presented the problem to the class, the students, including Maggie, now 14 and in eighth grade, embraced the challenge and were off.

“Our challenge was to give them the rope and then let it go,” Brandon said. “Not to hold them back, but unleash them.”

Meanwhile, designing wasn’t enough for Masterson. He wanted to see the thing built. But he realized that limitations of equipment and skill at the middle and high school levels would make it difficult. So Masterson put out the word to other tech-ed teachers to enlist help. Through word of mouth and networking, the project was brought to the attention of Dustin Van De Weerd, the elecromechanical instructor at Northcentral Technical College.

Van De Weerd put the project in front of his students, and asked for volunteers to take it on.

“These two stepped up,” he said, motioning to Thor Gunderson of Park Falls and Justin Schaefer of Colby. The two paired up to refine and manufacture a design idea put forth by the Mosinee eighth-graders.

It became their NTC capstone project — an assignment to encapsulate what they learned in electromechanical program, a key project to be completed for graduation. The college students presented to DeBroux and the eighth graders an early version of their invention.

The River Park demonstration on May 20 was an official unveiling. The project still isn’t complete; when it is, DeBroux will be able to command the fishing pole through an iPad application.

But the gregarious Gunderson and quiet Schaefer still felt a sense of accomplishment.

“It was a hardcore work month (to get the pole ready for the unveiling,” Gunderson said. “But I want to keep on working with this. I’m not going to quit until this is perfect. I want to get an email from Mr. DeBroux that talks about how he went fishing and had a good time.”

Schaefer hopes he can help Gunderson complete the project. “It just feels good to help somebody like this,” he said.

The fishing rod as it stands now exceeds any expectations that DeBroux had.

“Wow, who would have thought it would come to this?” he said.

But fishing is almost beside the point, he said. The true value of the project lies in how it brought together teachers, students of various ages and others in the community to create and build and cooperate.

“What was important was the learning experience that all these people enjoyed,” he said.

He believes that the project can have potential to help others dealing with paralysis, too.

Maggie, the student who started it all with her empathy, fought back tears again that Wednesday.

“I’m just kind of overwhelmed with emotion right now,” she said after the demonstration. “I’m so happy. He has the ability to do something he loved.”’

Information from: Wausau Daily Herald Media, http://www.wausaudailyherald.com

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