Mancos teen wins national recognition

Easton LaChappelle turned his bedroom into a workshop for his science experiments. Enlargephoto

Journal/Sam Green

Easton LaChappelle turned his bedroom into a workshop for his science experiments.

Easton LaChappelle is a whiz kid. A geek, a nerd, the science dude.

“Yeah, I'm pretty much all of those,” the 16-year-old Mancos teen says.

“In science class, everybody wants to be my partner. They know I'm pretty focused,” he says with a sly grin.

Easton has the focus of a hungry eagle both in and out of the classroom.

A while back Easton was doing a little tinkering in his workshop, which is also where he sleeps. He was in the process of dissecting a microwave, removing the guts so a more scrutinized examination could begin.

There were some pops and crackles, then sparks went airborne. Soon after the first spark vanished, Dad, Patrick LaChappelle, calmly strolled into the bedroom and dropped off a fire extinguisher.

Such is the life of an American science geek teenager.

His bedroom — or rather, his workshop — is packed with tools, computers, vices, glue guns, hammers, drills, wires, cords, a few LEGOs and everything that a teenage scientist, engineer, computer science mechanical whiz kid needs. Framed certificates and awards are proudly displayed on the wall.

“Sometimes, there's a lot of commotion going on in there,” Easton's mom Julia Whelihan says.

Commotion is one reason why that fire extinguisher is now a permanent addition to Easton's workshop.

In the corner, there's a sliver of a bed and he's in the process of tearing out his closet to make way for more work space.

He now has a minor planet named after him. That's what you get when you're focused and create out-of-this-world stuff as a teenager.

Back in May, Easton's science skills were recognized in Pittsburgh, Pa. with a second place award in the Intel International Science Fair competition. Placing second in the Electrical and Mechanical Engineering category, he received $1,500 and that minor planet was named after him.

Pretty cool. Mighty impressive.

QUEST TO MAKE SOMETHING COOL

Easton's award-winning project is a robotic hand, an idea that sparked more than two years ago.

“I just woke up one day and wanted to make something really cool,” he says.

His words are humble and modest. He sounds like a professor when he talks about the project. When he explains the inner workings of his robotic hand, he's precise and detailed.

“It's really pretty simple, he said, explaining how the hand works.

Simple? Maybe for Easton.

For most, not simple at all. It's a working robotic hand that was created in a teenager's bedroom.

To get to this point, Easton incorporated engineering, mechanics, and electronic and computer science, and a few LEGOs. All things he pretty much taught himself.

He also taught himself how to write computer code, so the hand can work through wireless technology.

Learning and grabbing knowledge has always been part of Easton's DNA.

Easton's mind works on a slightly different wave length than most. He reluctantly agrees, and his mother wholeheartedly supports that premise.

“He's a different kind of learner,” Mom says. “Easton has always been a kid who has thought differently.”

Instead of doing a traditional book report, Easton produced a small video report on a book. He got an A. He produces more A's than a can of alphabet soup.

When he was a freshman, his teacher assigned students the task of writing a paragraph on what they learned during the week of class.

Being the grasshopper didn't appeal to Easton. Instead he became the teacher.

“I would send him what I learned on my own and he would say that I would teach him something new,” he says. Another grin.

“I guess I have a different approach to things. I just have an interest in things and I'll do anything to learn more and more about it,” he says.

Like slicing open a microwave.

Whelihan says her son has always liked ripping things apart to see how they worked, starting with toys.

“Then he advanced to things like toasters and microwaves,” she says with a smile.

Soon word of Easton's love of electronic demolition spread through the neighborhood.

“It got to the point where people would just drop things off — they'd say 'let's just give it to Easton and let him tear it apart,'” she says.

Easton's parents have always been very supportive and encouraging.

“They let me turn my bedroom into a workshop,” he says, smiling.

LOVES GADGETS

Whelihan remembers making capes out of pillow cases for her young sons, Easton and older brother Cameron, so they could create alter ego super heroes. For Easton, his favorite super hero was the Caped Crusader.

“Yeah, probably Batman because he had all those cool gadgets,” he says.

Easton loves gadgets. He made a robotic hand.

Possibly the single most important building block for Easton's interest in creating and exploration is the snap-together plastic toy LEGOsŪ.

He even incorporated LEGOsŪ into his first design of the robotic hand.

“I had tubs of LEGOsŪ growing up. I still want to use LEGOsŪ but I know I really can't,” he says about the robotic hand.

The other motivating part of Easton's psyche is the simple phrase — “How cool would it be to …”

That's his muse — the quest to create cool stuff.

Like a robotic hand.

A WORK IN PROGRESS

Easton's robotic hand is now in its third year and has progressed and improved over the years.

When he was finished with the first hand, he made a video about how it was created. The video didn't quite go viral, but it did make the soon-to-be junior a bit of a science geek and engineering world celebrity.

There was a flattering article in Popular Mechanics, and he was popping up on all kinds of blogs. Now, he's already received some job offers.

There was talk about Easton being featured on the Syfy channel and maybe even an appearance on Good Morning America.

But there needs to be more to a teenager's life than just science.

Easton's parents keep a careful eye on their son to make sure that his focus isn't too tunneled.

Now that summer is here, Easton has been taking a little bit of a break from the science stuff.

“He needs to still be a 16-year-old kid,” Whelihan said. “Balance is important. But he seems to know when he needs to cut loose.

“He can't just be that kid who hangs out in his room.”

The more Easton explains how he made the hand and how it works, demonstrating and displaying parts, the more it's obvious that this is the work of a really bright kid.

The international science contest was a phenomenally impressive gathering of young minds, with teens from all around the country and foreign lands like China, Sweden, Germany, India and Kazakhstan earning invites to the finals.

The winning entry in Easton's category came from a 16-year-old girl from Kazakhstan, who designed small wind-powered engines for low wind speeds.

This was a very tough competition.

WHAT'S NEXT?

Easton is excited about the next step for the robotic hand. He hopes to improve on his project and again qualify for the contest next year.

“I want to make it more applicable. I also want to make it publicly acceptable for a prosthetic,” he says.

Making the robotics work all the way up to the shoulder is another goal. Making it more lightweight with smaller components and lighter alloys is another.

He still has a lot of work to do.

“I want to redo the whole arm, redesigning the whole hand with more movements,” he said.

He hopes to have wrist movements in the entire unit as well.

Like an angry microwave, the spark in Easton's eyes grows larger when he talks about the hand.

He's even looking at getting into sensory systems, where the fingers would respond to the sense of touch and would be able to be controlled through the brain.

As he continues to explain how the hand works and what the future holds, his voice is packed with excitement. With every word, it gets more and more evident that this project is far, very far, from simple.

There's a reason why he has all those awards on the wall.

Mom is pretty impressed.

“Yes, it does blow me away sometimes. Growing up in midwestern Wisconsin, I never thought like that,” she says.

Whelihan and Patrick LaChappelle always kept things positive for Easton and Cameron.

“We always wanted our kids to experience things. You always have to dream big and have the best for your kids and we never said 'never,'” she says.

Easton's science abilities were not handed down. Mom works at the Mancos Library and Dad has worked for UPS in Durango for the past 15 years.

Easton shrugs, not sure where his science passion comes from.

He's already thinking about college, maybe the University of Colorado, maybe Cornell, and MIT is on the radar.

For now, he's just a kid with a robotic hand on the workbench, enjoying his summer break.

Easton LaChappelle's accomplishments are well into the “WOW!” category.

What the project has created for Easton is a stratospheric sense of pride and provided invaluable lessons that all teenagers must learn if they will succeed later in life.

“I went through so many trial and errors that I was almost ready to give up,” he says.

But he kept plugging away.

Looking at the mechanical hand, it's like a scene out of “Terminator.”

“In the end, it all works the way it's suppose to. To see something that you make actually work — that's a pretty cool feeling.”

Pretty cool? It's way beyond pretty cool.

But simple?

LEGOsŪ are simple. This is way beyond simple.

Easton demonstrates the robotic hand. Enlargephoto

Easton demonstrates the robotic hand.

Easton LaChappelle poses with his robotic arm he made for his science fair project. Enlargephoto

Journal/Sam Green

Easton LaChappelle poses with his robotic arm he made for his science fair project.