Ashland Middle School students invent device to pick up needles, win $150,000 technology grant for school

A group of middle school students at Ashland Middle School were inspired to create a device to pick up used syringes after learning that first responders had only rubber gloves and tongs to pick them up. The students have been recognized nationally for their invention.

Ashland Middle School was one of three schools to win the 2018 SamsungSolve for Tomorrow Contest for inventing a device to pick up dirty needles, winning the school a $150,000 technology grant. The annual contest challenges sixth through 12th graders to use science, technology, engineering arts and mathematics to address real-world issues and inspire local change.

The device is slightly longer than a syringe and about two inches wide; it looks like a small plastic box with teeth. To pick up the needle, the box is placed over it, teeth side down, then squeezed to pick up then needle, without anyone touching it. The device can then be placed in an evidence cylinder.

“This doesn’t solve the drug crisis; it just helps us stay safe while we are trying to solve the drug crisis,” Aubree Hay, a student who worked on the project, said on a recent Kentucky Educational Television program, “Disrupting the Opioid Epidemic: A KET Forum.”

The students created the device after their school resource officer, Troy Patrick, pitched the idea to their science and technology teacher and explained to them the dangers first responders face when they come upon dirty needles left behind by intravenous drug users, including exposure to HIV/AIDS, hepatitis C and leftover drug residue.

“This is something that could be nationwide,” Patrick said. “It could be used in every ambulance and every police department in the nation.”

Ashland Middle School is in Boyd County, which has been particularly hard hit by the opioid epidemic. The state’s 2017 Overdose Fatality Report found that the county ranked fourth for overdose deaths per person, at 64.6 per 100,000 residents.

Will Wright of the Lexington Herald-Leader reports that staff at the local elementary schools in Boyd County scan playgrounds every day for discarded needles.

The students started working on the project last fall and won the state level competition in December, an honor that came with a $50,000 technology award. In March, they became one of 10 national finalists and after presenting their projects to a panel of judges in New York in April, they were chosen as one of three 2018 national grand prize winners, according to the news release.

The New York Post reports that Ashland Middle School was also named the Community Choice Award winner, based on the public’s votes, which will bring a further $20,000 of technology to the school.

The students have also created an online database where people can report where they find used needles, as a way to map the areas most likely to encounter drug paraphernalia.

Ann Woo, senior director of corporate citizenship for Samsung, told Wright that the Ashland project stood out because it could be utilized in communities across the world that are impacted by the drug epidemic. “We loved the creativity and ingenuity,” Woo said, adding that the invention “can actually have impact in other communities across the nation.”

The other two grand-prize winners were Cavallini Middle School in Upper Saddle River, N.J., which developed a helmet concussion sensor, and Thomas Jefferson Middle School in Winston-Salem, N.C., which built a smart water-sensor system that automatically deploys water barriers during floods.

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