Palestinian girls invent 'seeing' walking stick for blind

McClatchy NewspapersApril 27, 2010 

NABLUS, West Bank — When Palestinian teenager Aseel Abu Leil looked around her hometown of Nablus for inspiration for the world's largest science fair, she couldn't help but note the obvious.

"We are not known for peaceful science here," the 14-year-old said.

Nablus, which was a flash point for violence during the first and second Palestinian uprisings, was later identified by Israel as the hub for the production of rockets and suicide bomber vests.

"I didn't look outside, I looked home," Aseel said. That's where she noticed some of the logistical problems that her blind aunt faced.

Along with classmates Aseel Sha'ar and Nour El Arda, she invented an obstacle-detecting walking stick. They entered the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair alongside 6 million global contestants, and were chosen to be among 1,500 finalists to attend the world's largest science fair next month in San Jose, Calif.

"We are very proud. To go, to compete at Intel and show our work. This is very, very important," Nour said. "I am proud of what we have done. There was already one (walking stick) that could sense objects ahead, and another one that could find holes, but nobody combined the two."

The three girls clasped arms as they demonstrated their invention on the courtyard steps of their school. A rough cane made of local pine, it has two infrared sensors that scan forward and downward to detect changes in the terrain and help the user "see" obstacles ahead. It issues various high-pitched beeps to alert the user.

"We all want to grow up to do important things," said Aseel Abu Leil, who wants to be a gynecologist. Aseel Sha'ar and Nour said they wanted to go into the sciences and education, respectively.

"We, as women, have brains too. As good as anyone else," Aseel Abu Leil said. "We have shown what we can do."

Intel provided funding for only two of the three girls to travel to San Jose. They flipped a coin, and Aseel Abu Leil was left out.

"I was very much sad. ... I cried," she said, exchanging glances with her two friends. "But what is important is that our stick will be shown at Intel."

Sitting in front of dozens of their classmates, the three girls told the story of their invention this week and gave a demonstration.

Chris Gunness, a spokesman for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, which funds the girl's school in Nablus, surveyed the invention before he turned his attention to Aseel Abu Leil.

UNRWA, he told them, had raised enough money to make sure that she could travel with her friends to the Intel fair.

Teenage shrieks broke the sober and professional demeanor the girls had displayed. Hugging, crying and giggling, Aseel Abu Leil said that it was "the most important thing, the biggest thing" that had ever happened to her.

"It is so big. I cannot say," she said. "To travel, to represent my people. ... I will remember this the rest of my life."

Gunness said the girls represented the importance of the U.N. agency's school system, which serves more than a quarter of a million children in the Palestinian territories.

"UNRWA and Intel firmly believe that empowering the next generation to think rationally and scientifically is a real contribution. Obstacles, global obstacles, can be overcome with the right mindset. These girls illustrate that beautifully," Gunness said.

(Frenkel is a McClatchy special correspondent.) MORE FROM MCLATCHY

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