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5th-grader's science fair TRAX crossing arms won awards, but not UTA attention

Published: Wednesday, June 22 2011 5:48 p.m. MDT

James Blake, 11, works with his TRAX pedestrian gate invention at his home in West Jordan Wednesday, June 22, 2011. Blake won his Westvale Elementary School, district and Central Utah Engineering & Science fairs with the project.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

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WEST JORDAN — West Jordan fifth-grader James Blake just wanted to help.

Last December, for his science fair project, he chose the option to do some engineering. The instructions said he had to find a problem and design a solution.

At school, a new TRAX line under construction nearby was all the talk.

“I heard that the children of our school are going to be walking across TRAX,” he said. “If they were like reading a book with earphones on, they could get hit. … It’d be like getting hit by a herd of elephants.”

That certainly seemed like a problem worthy of a science project, he thought.

James didn’t know his quest for a solution would bring him statewide attention, and place him in the middle of an issue that became especially controversial after the death of 15-year-old Shariah Casper on June 8, as she and a friend attempted to cross the new Mid-Jordan TRAX line.

Wednesday night, he will present his solution — two designs for pedestrian crossing arms — to the West Jordan City Council.

Working to solve such problems is a natural fit for the quiet, studious boy with a crew cut and a cowlick, says his mom, Lisa Blake.

“He’s the builder and creator. He’s the kid who takes things apart.”

James’ solution won first place not only at the school and district science fairs, but it took the regional competition held at BYU as well. That was as far as the Jordan School District student could go.

One of the crossing arms he made out of metal erector set strips. As the roadway arm goes down, a similar arm falls the opposite way to block pedestrians.

But he prefers his other solution, he says, because unthinking children can still slip under the arm and end up in front of a UTA train going 65 mph.

That design took three wood ice cream cup spoons painted in red and white stripes. They’re attached to a clothespin that spins around a pole. It's designed to swing out and block pedestrians, more like a door.

With his old Fisher-Price Geo Trax train set, his grandpa’s electronics lab console and a complicated rigging of electric motors, rubber bands, wheels and string, both crossing arms close as the train approaches.

It’s all triggered by a light sensor, James explains. When the train breaks the beam of light, a relay switch and two AAA batteries set everything in motion.

James’ work even got the attention of a Utah Transit Authority engineer, Lisa Blake said. At the BYU competition, they were told that the engineer wasn’t able to make it to the event but wanted them to send information so he could share it with co-workers.

The Blakes made a video, which is now posted on YouTube, and emailed it to him at UTA. They never heard back.

That was a bit disappointing, the Blakes say.

James’ mother is on the elementary school’s community council and she has also been working on the same problem — not with electronics, but with bureaucracy. She, too, has been disappointed with UTA’s responsiveness to parents’ concerns, she said.

“We just felt like we were being brushed off,” Lisa Blake said. “I was just devastated after that happened to Shariah.”

James’ classmates asked him why he chose such a hard problem for his project.

“I wanted to do something to help,” he said. “I think they need to at least put something in there, if not my design. I just knew at some point it would need to be put in.”

E-mail: lbrubaker@desnews.com

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