Middle Schoolers Invent Device For Safely Picking Up Used Needles

By Victoria Kim 03/21/18

The Kentucky students' 3D-printed, award-winning invention offers community volunteers a safe method for picking up needles.

Young volunteer picking up litter in park

Discarded needles that litter public spaces are one side effect of the national opioid epidemic. But picking them up to dispose of them properly, unfortunately, isn’t that simple.

Cleaning up used needles carries the risk of accidentally puncturing the skin, leaving a person vulnerable to contracting hepatitis C or HIV, or coming in contact with potentially harmful opioid residue.

Motivated to address these risks, students at Ashland Middle School in Boyd County, Kentucky, invented a device that picks up syringes and minimizes the risk of harm.

Last year, emergency medical services in Boyd County responded to 326 heroin overdoses. Discarded needles are the physical evidence of the drug problem.

Staff at Crabbe Elementary School in Ashland must scour the area for needles every morning, the Lexington Herald Leader reported. This school year, 18 needles have been found on school grounds.

“We have little brothers and sisters, and we don’t want them to come in contact with needles,” said Aubree Hay, a student at Ashland Middle School who worked on the project. “Kids, they don’t know any better to not pick up a needle.”

The device itself, 3D-printed at the school, is a small plastic box, a little more than the length of a syringe and about three inches wide. One side consists of plastic teeth. To pick up a needle, the box is placed over the needle, teeth face down, then squeezed to pick up the needle.

The project came about after Ashland police officer Troy Patrick, who works at the middle school, approached science and technology teacher Mike Polley about designing a safe method of picking up needles that could be used by community volunteers.

“They’re talking about using spaghetti tongs and pliers and stuff to pick these things up. Without proper training for picking up a needle, it could be a bad thing,” said Patrick.

The kids at Ashland delivered, and their invention paid off. Their device won first place in the statewide Samsung Solve For Tomorrow contest, and will move on to the next round in April for a chance to win the national prize of $100,000.

The students have also created an online database that people can report to when they find a used needle, to visually map and highlight the areas where people are more likely to encounter drug paraphernalia. 

They’ll also speak to elementary school students to inform them of the risks of picking up discarded needles. “I think it’ll help the kindergartners and the elementary schoolers when we present to them because we’re kids, and it’s not just an adult telling them not to do something,” said Aubree Hay.

“This really happens. We could find a needle really anywhere.”

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Victoria is interested in anything that has to do with how mind-altering substances impact society. Find Victoria on LinkedIn or Tumblr