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Foothills County student sticks to goal to help arthritis sufferers

Michael Schnell developing adapted stick shift as part of Strathcona-Tweedsmuir School project
NEWS-Michael Schnell BWC 9534 web
Strathcona-Tweedsmuir student Michael Schnell on Feb. 12 with prototypes of an assistive device he designed for those suffering with arthritis to use a car's stick shift. Schnell was inspired by seeing his friend's mother, who has arthritis, struggle with household tasks.

A Foothills County student believes arthritis shouldn’t stop a person from experiencing the joy of driving with a stick shift.

Michael Schnell is inventing an apparatus to allow arthritis sufferers to handle a stick shift as part of a school project at Strathcona-Tweedsmuir School.

“I am making an attachment for a stick shift,” said the Grade 12 Schnell. “My friend’s mom has arthritis and I drive a stick-shift car.

“So, I just thought that someone who has trouble moving their hands would have trouble driving one,  very hands on.

“I thought that if there is a car enthusiast out there and they have developed arthritis, they won’t be able to do what they love.”

Schnell drives a 2007 Audi A4 Quattro with a stick and he loves it.

“It’s more fun, more engaging – you’re more aware of what you are doing,” he said.

The project is part of his International Baccalaureate design technology class.

“As a final project we have to take what we have learned throughout the course and apply those strategies to our own product,” said Schnell, who lives between Millarville and Okotoks. “We have to identify a problem that we see in society and then consider how can we solve those problems.

“Right now, I am making the first prototypes.”

He has two of three prototypes, which are made of foam, completed.

But first, he had to make sure his project was actually fixing a problem.

Schnell initially did research with people who have arthritis and he also reached out to the Alberta Arthritis Society.

“My surveys indicated that driving with a stick would be a problem,” Schnell said. “I found out through my survey that (arthritic) people don’t like using their fingers for a lot of motions. They prefer big hand movements rather than joint specific.”

The survey questions were basic he said. 

“It was like, ‘what type of knife do you use in the kitchen’,” Schnell said. “Just to get an idea as to weight, how people hold those knives, also what kind of door handle do they prefer, the knob-type ones or the handle-type ones.”

He also had questions about what type of grip they would prefer on the stick shift.

Once all three prototypes are done, there is yet more research.

“I plan to do another survey or get some anthropometric data, which means I give the data to people with hand arthritis and get them to test each prototype to see which they prefer,” Schnell said. “Then I will only follow through with the ones I know which will help people.”

He still needs to research on what the material would be made of – a thermal plastic he can mould into a shape with a knob that protrudes is likely.

STS has 3-D printers and mould boxes, which the students can use.

Potentially, when Schnell’s project is completed, it could be marketed.

That would be nice, but the goal isn't to make money.

"I just saw the problem and wanted to see if I could come up with a solution," Schnell said. "My goal is to push it out to market to help people out."

Schnell plans to study either mechanical or biomedical engineering after high school graduation.

“I have always been interested in the sciences and how to help people out – how things work,” he said.


Bruce Campbell

About the Author: Bruce Campbell

Bruce Campbell is the editor for Okotokstoday.ca and the Western Wheel newspaper. He is a graduate of Mount Royal College journalism program, 1991. For story tips contact bcampbell@okotoks.greatwest.ca
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