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FIRST Robotics Inspires Rose-Hulman Freshman Tim Balz to Give Wheelchairs Second Life

February 17, 2014

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Using Skill To Help Others: Tim Balz gathered Plainfield (Indiana) High School classmates to form Freedom Chairs. The company refurbishes discarded electrical wheelchairs for youths and elderly. He works on similar wheelchair projects as a student intern at Rose-Hulman Ventures. (Photos by Shawn Spence)

     Ingenuity comes from inspiration. When Tim Balz found Plainfield High School classmate Steven Scholl struggling to use a wheelchair to get down school hallways, he knew his technical skills through the FIRST Robotics program could make a difference in someone’s life.

     So, with the help of some friends, Balz modified a discarded motorized wheelchair for Scholl. It was the springboard for his non-profit Freedom Chairs organization, which, after three years, has provided more than 80 refurbished customized electric wheelchairs to youths and elderly persons who can’t afford them.

     “Freedom Chairs shows how people with technical skills can assist others in need. It gave my interests in robotics a purpose,” says Balz, a freshman Rose-Hulman mechanical engineering student. He returns home to Plainfield, Indiana on most weekends to work on projects.

     Balz’s efforts haven’t gone unappreciated. He received the 2012 Hall of Fame Award from American Red Cross of Greater Indianapolis, the 2012 Power of Children Award from the Children's Museum of Indianapolis, and the Indiana Pacers’ Indiana Heroes Award. Five Hour Energy and other national companies support Freedom Chairs through grants, and have featured Balz in promotional videos. (A recent Five Hour Energy video has been seen by over two million viewers—and counting.)

     His experience with wheelchair construction has helped Balz as a student intern at Rose-Hulman Ventures, helping assemble a high-tech motorized wheelchair for wounded U.S. soldiers and other clients.

     Balz credits his involvement in the FIRST Robotics program with igniting his interest in becoming an engineer.

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Motivated By FIRST Robotics: Freshman mechanical engineering student Tim Balz became interested in a career in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics after becoming involved in the FIRST Robotics program.

     "I've always kind of loved how things work, taking stuff apart and putting it back together, but I never actually realized that this could be a career until FIRST Robotics," Balz recently told Engineering the Next Generation blog on the EDN Network. "Before FIRST I didn't really care what my future was going to be."

     After joining Plainfield High School’s robotics team, Balz raised his grade point average from 2.7 to 3.65 and now attends the nation’s top-ranked undergraduate engineering college.

     "If it wasn't for FIRST I probably wouldn't be in college,” Balz says. "I consider (FIRST) the fastest-growing sport right now because so many schools are adopting it. It has an incredible impact on lives and it's really cool to see how many kids have a passion for it."

     Now his Freedom Chairs work is gaining support from the engineering community, even seeing him speak at major conferences and events. Recently, Balz shared his story and helped promote Freedom Chairs and FIRST at the Electronic Components Industry Association's 2013 Executive Conference.

     "It was a really incredible experience," Balz says. "FIRST has done so much for me and it was really gratifying for me to give back to FIRST by speaking at this event."