The fifth-grade robotics team from Bolles Lower School in Ponte Vedra Beach presented a wheelchair beach access plan to the St. Johns County Commission on Tuesday.
Future Bolles (FBI) innovators dressed accordingly in aviator sunglasses, hats and body armor as they performed a skit for the commissioners that demonstrated the problems with the wheelchair program of county beach. In the skit, FBI agents responded to a complaint from a wheelchair user who had to wait three weeks for a beach rental.
“We are working to make our beaches the most accessible in the state,” an FBI agent said during the presentation. “127 million people visit the Sunshine State each year. We can attract more tourists if our beaches are known for their accessibility.
The project was part of the team’s participation in the FIRST LEGO League, an international robotics competition built around themed challenges that engage kids ages 9-16 in research, problem-solving, coding and learning. engineering. This winter, robotics teams from around the world – including several from the Bolles school – trained for local and regional qualifying competitions.
“Their goal was to identify a problem, and the teams invited wheelchair users to help determine the biggest accessibility issues in our area,” said Carolyn Houston, science teacher and robotics coach at the Lower School of Bolles, Ponte Vedra Beach Campus. “The problem was quickly identified – access to our beaches for people with disabilities needed help.”
In their skit, the students explained research that shows people in wheelchairs might avoid the beach due to a lack of accessibility. In St. Johns County, wheelchair users must reserve a wheelchair in advance, which can create a three-week service lag. The wheelchairs are delivered to the user’s home or to the beach of his choice.
Instead, the students proposed setting up ‘pod’ distribution centers at beach access points, where wheelchairs could be rented via a mobile app. The system would be similar to the e-bike and e-scooter rental systems that have become popular in recent years.
“As a team, we contacted and interviewed over 50 wheelchair users from area counties,” said one student. “The results suggest that most wheelchair users avoid the beach because it is not currently accessible. The data indicates that most users would be more likely to go to the beach if beach wheelchairs were easily accessible. The responses positively reflect that the app and pod system would make the process of getting a beach wheelchair much easier for their trip to the beach.
The students reviewed building codes, spoke with former county commissioners, learned about disability laws and consulted with contractors to get an estimate for the project. They found federal grants that could provide up to $250,000 for pilot programs creating better access for people with disabilities. They also plan to reach out to Uber for a possible partnership that could allow them to use some of their existing app technology. The cost of developing the app would cost around $35,000, according to student research.
St. Johns County Commissioners thanked the students for their ideas and said they would take a closer look at the realization of their innovative plans.
“As we deal with an aging population and more veterans and people with disabilities, I think it would be prudent to look at this and I appreciate the innovation and bringing this to our attention,” he said. said Commissioner Jeremiah Blocker. “I would like to get consensus to direct Mr. Conrad and our staff to look into this and see if this is something we could implement in St. Johns County.”
The FBI robotics team has qualified for the regional FIRST LEGO League competition, to be held later this month at the Prime Osborn Convention Center in Jacksonville.