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Christmas wish comes true

Dickinson High School sophomore Mitch Hintz is like any other high school student. He likes to hang out with friends, he thinks about career options and has a wish list for Christmas. The one item on his list is unique to all others. He wanted to...

Dickinson High School sophomore Mitch Hintz is like any other high school student. He likes to hang out with friends, he thinks about career options and has a wish list for Christmas. The one item on his list is unique to all others. He wanted to take a sip of water without the assistance of anyone.

The son of Mike and Donalda Hintz, Mitch was born with cerebral palsy.

Cerebral palsy is defined as damage to the part of the brain controlling movement. Areas of the brain which define a person's intelligence are not affected.

"His dream was to be independent and able to take a drink without asking someone all the time," said Donalda Hintz.

His dream came to the attention of DHS Special Services Department Chairman Elaine Lindemann and family and consumer science teacher Mary Bruhschwein.

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"Mitch has limited use of his hands. He can't hold on to a glass. You have to hold it for him," said Lindemann.

"I met Mitch in the hallway. He has such a fun sense of humor. He told me his goal was to get a drink of water on his own," said Bruhschwein. "I was trying all kinds of things I could do on my own and nothing worked,"

Last year, Bruhschwein met an engineer during a chance encounter in a Valley City flower shop.

"My sister suggested I tell him about it (the problem). When I finally told him, he said he knew NDSU engineering students had to do a project. He would forward my name to the dean," she said.

Brushchwein's request came to the attention of an NDSU electrical engineering professor.

"We did a long conversation about Mitch. I could submit a proposal, but he couldn't promise anybody would take it," she said.

North Dakota State University students Adam Lawler of Linton, Nathan Livingston of Minot and Sachin Garg of India accepted the challenge of designing a drink assistant as their senior project.

"We're all electrical engineers. We're all seniors," said Lawler.

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The students wrote a report outlining their conceptual design, budget and timeline in February. Work continued until the summer and resumed in the fall.

"In October, we ran into a few problems with some of the components. We got them resolved by the end of the month," he said.

Funding for the project came from a National Science Foundation grant.

"It provides NDSU with a certain amount of funding for projects each year," he said.

"The basic plan was to start with a drink-aid system. Basically, it's a bottle and mounting bracket with flex tubing," he said. "We attached a pump system on it. You don't have to use suction. The water is delivered to you."

He said the main challenge was to make sure the product was safe.

"We spent a lot of time working on different plastics that would fit for this project. We decided to introduce a cleaning system. Also, we made sure the plastics were strong and durable so they wouldn't corrode with the cleaning systems," he said.

A microprocessing chip runs the cleaning system. The program is controlled by buttons found on front of the enclosure.

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"It's a relatively simple program that's on there," he said. "We designed the pump system and cleaning system to operate on separate circuits."

Lawler said the power source is the two 12-volt batteries that operate the wheelchair.

"It draws a few micro amps of power. It draws up to 8 amps when the pump is being primed. After that, the pump when activated only draws 2½ amps. Those few micro amps will have very little affect on the battery throughout the day," he said.

Another challenge was to create a plastic mouth piece that would withstand a biting muscle spasm. Livingston contacted a plastics company in Minot. The company designed two mouth pieces.

The students also made sure the device was small, portable and could easily disconnect from the wheelchair.

The design calls for two relays in the circuitry. When the mouthpiece sensor trips a relay, 1.5 ounces of water are pumped into the mouth and then shuts off, regardless if the tube is still in the mouth or not. The system only resets if the mouthpiece is exposed to light again. Another relay prevents the pump from turning on if Mitch goes into a dark room.

"We were pretty confident going into it when we first started. Some of the circuitry Nathan already used before. He was really confident going into the design stage," said Lawler. "My part of the design was the power system. I was pretty confident it would work as well. The part we weren't sure about from early on was the cleaning system. It required quite a bit of time and work."

In their final report, the students felt the device should do nothing but benefit the student, as well as make life a little easier for his caregivers, since now he is able to get his own drink when thirsty.

The report further stated the electronics should require no replacements as long as the device is used as intended for at least 10,000 cycles based on the expected lifespan of the mechanical relays used to operate the pump.

After the device was tested and approved, the students made a trip to Dickinson to deliver the drinking assistant to Mitch.

After the device was hooked up and adjusted, Mitch took his first drink of water.

"It's cool! Thanks a lot," said Mitch.

His teachers and parents share in the excitement and gratitude toward the NDSU students.

"It's very awesome. It's making Mitch independent. He needs help eating and dressing, but this is something he can do for himself. You should see the smile on his face. He's happy. It's one of the best presents ever," said his mother.

She believes the drink assistant has applications for other people who cannot hold a glass or suck on a straw.

"It could be used by somebody in a nursing home," she said.

The family is at a loss for words in gratitude to the students.

"I thanked them up and down. I didn't know what else to say," she said.

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