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The alternative to buying new snow boots for kids every year? Expandable shoes


October's here, which means it won't be long before parents and caretakers in many parts of the country face an expensive question - how big are my kid's feet now? Meaning, is it time for new snow boots?


RASCOE: Chances are the kiddos have outgrown last year's pair, which they might not have worn much anyway. It's a problem a team of Northwestern University engineering students tackled for their senior project - winter boots that could last for more than just one season. For one of them, Joanne Park, it was personal.

JOANNE PARK: I grew up in a low-income family, and so I grew up getting hand-me-down boots and always wearing my brother's shoes. So I was really interested in, how might I get my own pair of boots?

RASCOE: They did a lot of research, conducted surveys. Ben Miller looked up patents.

BEN MILLER: That's where we were able to really find, you know, something like this with a winter boot hasn't been done in a patent before.

RASCOE: Designing the boot - that part was daunting.

CALLISTA SUKOHARDJO: We had, like, a huge brainstorming session with, like, Post-it notes and everything.

RASCOE: Callista Sukohardjo was also on the team.

SUKOHARDJO: That growing component was the thing that we didn't know how to design. We didn't know how we were going to make a shoe that's typically a fixed size kind of grow on its own.

RASCOE: So they looked at things like crutches, telescopes, accordions and, Joanne Park says, some kinds of footwear.

PARK: We looked into expandable ice skates, expandable Rollerblades and expandable ski shoes. And we took a lot of inspiration from those, as well. But they have, like, harder linings in a sense. So we wanted to make our boots more flexible.

RASCOE: They settled on what they call the Sno-Gro Boot.

MILLER: If you imagine a boot and you take the middle section out and you put sort of an accordion in there, you know, that allows it to stretch in and out - and that allows it to go to different sizes, and it locks in the heel by pressing down in different locations for different sizes.

RASCOE: When the Sno-Gro is set for the smallest size, the sole sticks out a bit behind the upper boot. Then you move the heel back as the child grows, stretching that accordion.

PARK: It expands three sizes. So I'm a size 5. Callista's a size 7. And we could both wear, like, the same exact pair of shoes, which is crazy.

RASCOE: In fact, once they made up the prototype in Northwestern's lab, Joanne and Calista did just that.

SUKOHARDJO: Joanne put it on her foot, and it worked. And we were like, OK, let's expand it. And then she just handed it over to me. And I was like, OK, here goes nothing and then just stuck my foot in. And I was just, like, oh, it works. And it was great. It was, like - really big relief.

RASCOE: Since graduating last spring, Ben Miller says the team has met with several manufacturers to try to bring the Sno-Gro Boot to market.

MILLER: It's been a learning curve, but we're definitely getting better at, you know, putting our foot in the door and getting connections.

RASCOE: So it sounds like Sno-Gros won't be on the market in time for this winter - but maybe next.

(SOUNDBITE OF CORY WONG'S "TEAM SPORTS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Ayesha Rascoe is the host of "Weekend Edition Sunday" and the Saturday episodes of "Up First." As host of the morning news magazine, she interviews news makers, entertainers, politicians and more about the stories that everyone is talking about or that everyone should be talking about.