Students, teachers and news crews waited tensely Friday as Brian Gibson grasped the angled spoon, scooped up a piece of a cereal bar and lifted it to his mouth.
As he closed his mouth over the spoon and ate, the room exploded with cheers and applause.
Brian, a student at East Mecklenburg High, has never been able to feed himself easily. But that’s changed since the students in Scott Vanderslice’s engineering, design and development class designed a special utensil for him. A patent for the prototype is pending.
Brian, 17, has arthrogryposis, which stiffens his joints, as well as a condition known as Pierre Robin sequence. The Mayo Clinic describes that as a combination of birth defects that can include a cleft palate, small jaw and tongue that falls back toward the throat.
The arthrogryposis poses a real problem for eating because it severely limits Brian’s range of motion in his elbows, said his mother, Evette Gibson. “Now he won’t have to fight with his food.”
Brian has limited speech abilities but couldn’t stop smiling after using the spoon named for him.
When Vanderslice challenged his class to make an invention that would help one of the school’s Exceptional Children students, they chose to try making a spoon for Brian.
“Eating is one of the most important things you can do, and we wanted to make him as independent as he can be,” said Jordan Thomas, a senior who helped design the spoon.
The class of 14 began the project in January by videotaping Brian eating and analyzing his difficulties. Then they met with him and his teacher, Sarah Hanson, to get more information.
“They asked really thought-provoking questions,” Hanson said. “They really had put a lot of thought into it.”
Then the prototypes began to emerge. The students first devised an elongated spoon with a larger, deeper ladle. That was difficult to scoop food with, and Brian had trouble getting the food into his mouth.
The next prototype had a flexible metal measuring stick for a handle. It wasn’t the right length, and the food bounced off the spoon.
The third was an improvement – the team angled the lengthened handle, but it was hard to turn, and the food fell off easily.
The fourth spoon was just right. The team moved the angle to the middle of the handle and also angled the head of the spoon. The handle has a pink clay grip at the bottom that will be a gel grip when it’s manufactured.
Parts of future spoons will be made from aluminum.
“He just lifts it to his mouth, and it’s already facing him,” Jordan said.
And the first moment he saw the spoon work?
“I was teary-eyed, and I don’t even cry.”
The students had a few possible names for the spoon, but decided to name it after Brian.
“We want to show him how much we love him,” Jordan said.
Vanderslice has applied for a patent for Brian’s Spoon in all 14 students’ names. Usually the patent process costs $7,000 to $9,000, but a former student, now a patent lawyer, is doing it pro bono. He said he hasn’t figured out funding to produce the spoon yet, and will focus on getting the patent first.
His students said they loved working on the project.
“It’s exciting to see Brian become more independent,” said Kourtney Hunter, a junior. “Seeing him happy makes me happy.”
Junior Omar Mina-Blanco, who helped design a nonslide tray for Brian to eat from (complete with a holder for Brian’s Spoon) said the project “helped me know how to design for people. You don’t just make something: We had to design it to fit his needs.”
Added senior Art Kongruengkit: “He showed us people have problems, and we need to work together to fix them.”