Baby, it's the way you make me kinda get me sit straightly, never wanna stop.
The Back Straight Boys aren't singing that tune yet, but they probably should be. The teenagers did, after all, name themselves after the boy band Backstreet Boys. But instead of targeting screaming teens, they're targeting screaming adults--screaming in pain, that is--with a device that aims to prevent poor workstation posture by monitoring wearers' stance and training them to correct it when needed.
Sean Colford, Ethan Epstein, Brandon Loye, and Michael Walsh, all of San Diego and just out of their freshman year of high school, came up with the idea for Posture Pad back in middle school after experiencing firsthand the discomfort computer use can cause.
"We noticed that at school, all the computer workstations were the same size, but Ethan and I had a 15-inch difference in height," Loye said. "I had to hunch my back to see the monitor, and Ethan had to sit on his legs. This caused us discomfort, and we thought we could do something about it."
So the longtime pals decided to delve deep into improper posture at computer workstations and the consequent musculoskeletal problems it can cause among kids and adults in classrooms and offices.
Many hours of research spawned the "Posture Pad," which strategically embeds sensors and microcomputers in an ergonomically designed seat pad to gauge a computer user's positioning and connects to the user's computer to deliver visual and/or audio feedback via special software.
The invention netted the boys a $25,000 development grant in the 2009 Christopher Columbus Awards competition, a science, technology, engineering, and math program that challenges middle-school students to identify a community problem and solve it using science and technology.
Since then (in between basketball, ultimate frisbee, snowboarding, tae kwon do, and soccer) the young inventors have refined their early prototype, which relied on on/off switches, rather than sensors, placed in the seat pad. Failure to sit in the proper position would trip the switches, causing either a vibration or audio tone to go off. The feedback would stop once the posture got corrected.
With sensors and microcomputers, the newer prototype is more advanced. The ergonomically conscious teens teamed with engineering students at UC San Diego to develop the software that lets users track their posture progress. And they have met with patent attorneys (with adults in tow, of course) for guidance on submitting a patent application. They've also visited local schools to teach their peers the importance of proper posture at computer workstations and authored the California PTA's resolution for computer workstation health (PDF).
"They're determined, that's for sure," says Rhonda Epstein, Ethan's mom and the team's coach.
The Back Straight Boys hope to conduct a pilot test of Posture Pad later this year at Boston University. BU professor and occupational therapist Karen Jacobs, their mentor, has helped them hone their research, which they'll present at the upcoming Human Factors and Ergonomics Society 55th annual meeting in Las Vegas.
We have, of course, seen some amazing kid-conceived creations before. Last year, a green-design contest sponsored by the PBS competition series "Design Squad" yielded impressive inventions, including the "Smarter Toilet," which lets users decide how much water they need to flush, and the "Sibling Soaker," a homemade dunk tank fashioned from common household items.