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Country Day School team to take ‘ChatterBox’ nationwide


GROTON — A team of three sixth-graders from Country Day School of the Holy Union has won the Region 1 portion of the national Toshiba/NSTA ExploraVision Awards Program.

The students were honored for their achievements at a special awards ceremony held April 3.

Matthew Fischetti, Shannon Forest and Rebekah Paxton bested peers from Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, Rhode Island and Vermont. They’re scheduled to advance to the finals in May.

“It’s a nationwide contest that really capitalizes on the process of innovation and imagination,” said Mary Hamelin, the students’ science teacher. “Kids get to imagine any problem they want, and then engineer a technological design that seeks to solve that problem.”

The ExploraVision competition, sponsored by Toshiba and administered by the National Science Teachers Association (NSTA), evaluates entrants in six different regions across the U.S. and Canada in four grade levels. The competition challenges students to research scientific principles and current technologies and design innovative technologies that could exist in 20 years. Students work in teams of two to four, with a total of 14,042 participating.

“The students submit a written report and five mock Web pages for the contest,” said Hamelin. “They draw pictures and set them up as if they’re going to be on a Web site. Winning at the regionals, the students get a laptop for their school with a program that allows them to set up a Web site that showcases what they did to win.”

For their winning submission, Country Day students imagined a new medical product they called ChatterBox.

“ChatterBox is an artificial larynx,” said Hamelin. “Due to cancer, many people lose their voice boxes. Realizing that, the students dreamed up this artificial voice box, or larynx, that would replace the one that was removed and allow the patient to speak normally again.

“The trick was to try and avoid having the resulting voice sound robotic like electronic voice boxes do now,” she said. “They wanted to create something that would make a person’s voice sound more normal. If their design was good, folks would have a more normal voice, and sounds could still be formed by mouth.

“Matthew came up with the idea, and then Rebecca helped refine what it was they were thinking about,” said Hamelin. “Part of the engineering process is when you work to define a problem before coming up with a whole bunch of solutions for it. From there, you refine it as you go and rework it as best you can. The students had to research the history of the problem from what has been done in the present day and go from there. They wanted to use nanotechnology and use a nano-chip that would take impulses from the brain and use them to activate the improved voice box. That’s not so farfetched.”

Country Day had originally fielded two teams in the competition, said Hamelin, but only one succeeded in winning, having put in a total of at least 40 hours on the project.

“I tried to eliminate anyone who was not up to the game,” said. “I told them up front that it was a lot of work, and they would have to be personally responsible. It was to be a student-driven project. I didn’t do the work for them, and neither were their parents supposed to.

“The students though, were enthusiastic,” she said. “They particularly liked the brainstorming where they had a chance to come up with ideas. Of course, then the hard work started with all the research they had to do and filling out the writing portion of the project and kind of keeping it all together.

“One of the nicest things for me as a teacher is watching the kind of group dynamics that comes into play when people of different strengths work together and they really balance each other out,” said Hamelin. “Some kids are really well-organized and some are stronger in the imagination department. As a result, there was a nice balance where all of the students involved got to use their individual strengths.”

But winning the regionals is only the beginning for the three students. In the next phase of the competition they’ll join 23 other regional winners to create working Web sites and prototypes of their inventions intended to convey their ideas. From those entrants, eight finalists will be selected in May. Students on each of the four first-place teams will each receive U.S. savings bonds valued at $10,000 at maturity. Students on second-place teams will receive U.S. savings bonds valued at $5,000 at maturity. All eight finalist teams, along with their coaches and families, will also be invited to attend the ExploraVision Gala Awards Weekend in Washington, D.C., in June.

In the meantime, Fischetti, Forest and Paxton were feted at Country Day School with the awards ceremony that included representatives from Toshiba and a group photograph to be published in a future issue of USA Today.

“I think that the exercise in and of itself helped the students to learn about the designing process and work with it at their own level,” said Hamelin. “They got a chance to look at that and play around with it a little. In addition, they also got to take a trip to Mass General Hospital to see how doctors work in a clinical research setting. I was proud of them for completing the project.”