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Bladen Reinier, left, and Carter Kendrick are two of the approximately 10 students at Ottumwa High School who are trying to figure out a way to quickly convert stairs to usable wheelchair ramps for evacuations in emergencies. The effort has made the OHS team one of two Iowa state winners in the Samsung Solve for Tomorrow Contest.

OTTUMWA — It sounds simple enough. Stairways are already an incline, so why can’t they be converted to ramps in an emergency to speed evacuation of people in wheelchairs?

But getting from the idea to the reality is proving to be a challenge, as some Ottumwa students are finding out.

The science club at Ottumwa High School is making progress, though, and they’ve impressed Samsung enough to move on as one of two state winners in the company’s “Solve for Tomorrow Contest.”

Bladen Reinier and Carter Kendrick said the club’s initial plan was for a rolling ramp that could be brought to stairways. The group found that wasn’t quite going to work, so they did what any good scientist would: they adapted.

“We came up with the idea to create a portable ramp,” Reinier said. “We sought out different resources to figure out how wheelchair ramps work. They’re surprisingly complex.”

The staircases themselves pose some challenges. Stairs are often steeper than wheelchair ramps. Since the focus is on evacuation, that’s not an insurmountable issue. It’s not like they have to get students back up the stairs. The trick is finding a way to allow a wheelchair to navigate the angle without building up too much speed and going out of control.

The current concept relies primarily on sturdy foam material similar to what is found in wrestling mats and a grip material. By cutting the foam into wedges, the team hopes to create a relatively steady incline.

Reinier said the first step of the competition did not require a working model. They just needed the concept and evidence they were working toward a solution that might be viable.

“We plan to make a full-scale design one day,” he said.

Right now, the students figured a crash test dummy was the right move. It might not be Barbie’s dream job, but the students think she’s a good candidate.

The doll and a wheelchair from the toy line already are scaled to each other. They have three-dimensional models of the stairs that they printed at the same scale. Students want to weight the doll/wheelchair combination in order to get a good idea of the forces involved. That should tell them whether they’re on the right track, or that they need to rethink some of the work.

The potential for the project is wide-ranging. After all, adjusting the model for other staircases would be largely a matter of getting new measurements. “I think this could be used for a lot, not just for schools,” Kendrick said.

Heather Swanson, the club’s sponsor, said the next step is creating a video presentation. If that wows judges, Ottumwa could be one of 20 national finalists. She said there are a total of about 10 students “actively working on the project.”

“This is ambitious,” she said.

And sometime next month they’ll find out whether their ambition gets them to the next level.

Matt Milner can be reached at mmilner@ottumwacourier.com and followed on Twitter @mwmilner

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Managing Editor

Matt Milner currently serves as the Courier's Managing Editor. Milner is a trained weather spotter and is usually outside if there are storms. He joined the Courier in 2002.

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