Competition Creates Success As Students Create Inventions In Assistive Technolog

by Melissa Begley

A frenetic energy buzzes through the room.  Students and teachers alike smile easily over breakfast foods as they make their way around what looks like a college lecture hall.  Groups of young adults in matching attire cluster together and some seem to be reviewing and putting final touches on presentations, while others confidently tease each other and seem not to have a care in the world as they prepare to execute a year’s worth of research and work.

The event at Mt. Olive High School:  The product presentation of the inaugural MiLLSTONE class which took place on Friday, June 1.

Last spring, one year ago, sophomores and juniors were invited to submit an application and go through a rigorous interview process if they were interested in taking this class.  This groundbreaking course challenged the students to create a company, a product and a brand of their own invention.  The theme of this year was Assistive Technology.  Students were looking to create items to increase, maintain, or improve the functional capabilities of persons with disabilities.

Each team of students were given a budget and a directive to invent a product within the time frame of one academic school year.  Each team chose a CEO, CFO, CTO and CMO.  The students met for this class three or four times a week based on their schedule.

The teachers in charge of this event were Megan Boyd and David Bodmer.  Stephen Geiger and Jennifer Kalkunte also played a role in the success of this class, but assisted in more behind the scenes action.  These teachers started the process by looking to establish well balanced teams.   They divided the students based on their strengths.  Each team had someone who excelled in leadership, technology, marketing, design and finance.  Some of the students had never met each other prior to this class.  When the teams first met, they worked to create a timeline and a plan to stay within the budget of $1,500.

On June 1, they presented their products to the other groups, their parents, and a panel of judges.   The panel was made up of Silvio Gnecco, and Jake Wohlander both from Siemens;  Lauren Antonelli, from CVS Healthcare; and Autumn Pedersen, former MOHS student. These judges will score them, offer insight, and ask questions.  Other members of the audience include administrators such as Dr. Tracey Severns, director of Student Performance; Superintendent of Schools Dr. Larrie Reynolds; and Dr. Gretel Perez, director Science STEAM Board Office.

As the presentations begin, Boyd and Bodmer are like two proud parents at a graduation. Their wide smiles are proof that the day is exceeding expectations.  Like most teachers of engaged students, they always knew their students would succeed, but they didn’t know just how awesome the products would be. Bodmer says that he is “extremely happy and proud.  It’s been a long journey.   The fact that they were the first group of students willing to take that journey with us says something about these kids as well.”

The presentations were excellent.  The products were neat.  The students created things to make life easier for those with disabilities.  There was a chair to help one stand up, another one for assistance in the shower, a cabinet that opened with a wave of the hand, a car that allowed a child with special needs to take a ride, and a video game controller set up for use of only one hand.

These are products that are creative, ingenuitive and helpful.  One is not really surprised though.  When a class is created with criteria to get into, and the best of the best students apply for it, interesting and amazing products will be created.  When element of competition and presentation is added to the mix, the students will rise to the challenge, go the extra mile.

What is more interesting is some of the other stuff, the obstacles, life lessons.  The things most people learn when they are an adult.  The sometimes nonsensical or unforeseeable actions that people who are veterans in the work force take as a given and can even prepare for, but that it’s difficult to teach to high school students. The “graduates” of this class now have these take-aways in their arsenal for when they go to college in September or the following year.

So what are these take-aways?

  1. Everything takes forever.

When speaking with members of Gendinamics and Body Booster, two groups who used assistive technology to build chairs, Mohammed Hamed and Blake Valenza explain how the budget that each group was given was handled.  Their $1,500 budget asked them to use a contract to obtain goods.  This paperwork had to be signed by the school and the company from which they were trying to get products.  It could take a month for it to all work out.  This can be a timely process for high school kids. Conversely, Siemen’s provided a $600 Fast Cash Visa where students  had to provide receipts after the fact.  This is the easier route that most of the groups wound up using.

Early on in the process, some chairs were ordered in hopes of constructing a new one to help a person stand up.  They waited as long as they could to receive these chairs because they had received a discount on a good quality product, but when they could wait no longer, they purchased others using the Fast Cash Visa.  Eventually, they learned the chairs had in fact been delivered. They were sitting in a storage room somewhere at the high school. 

  1. Everything cool has already been done, and that can be tough to deal with.

Valenza shares some of his group’s obstacles.  His group was the Body Boosters.  These students wanted to create a chair to help people stand up.  Then, through discussion, they had an entirely different idea and scrapped the first.  His group wanted to create a product that dispensed medication and was small enough to fit in the home or in a private room in a health facility.  His group thought that a machine approximately the size of a coffee maker could help people receive the dosage they needed for various medications in a timely manner.  The group agreed on this new idea and procured a coffee maker to begin disassembling.  However, after doing research online, they learned that their invention was already in existence.  This stalled production for awhile.  The team needed time to recuperate from this loss.  They had to do some team building to get through this setback and eventually circled back to one of their earliest ideas.  This brought about some problems too because another group was now deep into creating another chair developed to help people stand up in the showe

r.  Body Boosters met with Gendinamics and after working through some initial dissention, both groups agreed that their products were different enough to both continue.

  1. Good ideas surround participants and come from what they know.

Body Boosters switched to their idea of a small medicine dispenser because Valenza’s mom is a pharmacist.  She works with a large scale machine that dispenses medication.  The Rec Rovers came up with their idea in the same way.  Owen Keegan is a neighbor to a boy with special needs.  His group took an ordinary kid-sized motorized car and adapted it to provide accommodations to a special needs boy.  Keegan provided some insight about what all the groups were asked to do.  “We made our product over the course of the year, and we’re trying to sell it, theoretically.  We’re proving that it works, what it is, how it works, how effective it is…what it does, and it’s all under the theme of assistive technology to help people with disabilities. It aids people with certain tasks.”  Keegan and his group took from what surrounded him and made something meaningful.

  1. Create something meaningful to someone and outcome can lead to success.

The Rovers provided a video in their presentation that allowed others to see their car in action.  A young boy looks thrilled to be riding around in his Rec Rover, while his mom takes a turn with the controller an

d he just listens to music pumping out of his car’s radio. One of the quietest portions of the day is when a video of the little boy in the Rec Rover plays.  By the time this group has presented, all have been in the room for over three hours.  A little fidgeting is warranted, but the room stills. Everyone’s heartstrings are tugged just a little which we watch this boy have a little piece of normal in his day.

Dexos had a similar moment.  Dexos used a 3D printer to create the one-handed video gaming device. While Dexos had no idea who was sitting in their audience, they really struck a chord with one of the audience members.  After their presentation, one of the audience members raised her hand with a comment.  She had a brother who was hemipareti

c, and therefore would truly benefit from and fully enjoy one of these devices.  It sounded as if she may have even been moved to tears.

  1. First is best.

UnLIM1T Solutions was the first group to present.  They created a cabinet that would open with a wave of a hand.  This group had a very powerful first speaker named Isabella Ferrara.  She spoke comfortably and eloquently and demanded the attention in the room.

Impressed by her speaking skills, one may have thought she was in the drama or debate club. Ferrara learned how to do this in a computer science class with Mr. Grossi as well as in robotics where she often had

to persuade judges.

As far as her opinion to the class as a whole, Ferrara says, “It was hard in the beginning during the development process. The first concept of the class was tough, but once we had our product and our name, it was easy. I loved coming into the MiLL and working on our different projects. It was awesome.”

One may consider Ferrara’s group as ass standout.  Was that because of Ferrara’s speaking skills, and those of the other team members?  Perhaps?  Or was it because they presented first?  Whenever given the opportunity to something, it’s recommended to step up and do it.   Don’t wait to see what others do first.  This may have worked to the favor of UnLIM1T Solutions.

Along the lines of being first, similarly, some audience members admit to being a little confused about the two different chairs. “Another chair?”   Even though Body Boos

ter presented first, Gendinamics was much further along when Body Booster needed to switch gears and return to their original chair idea. Presenting first is sometimes all one can do to get the upper hand.

One student on the way out had that look of someone with a huge weight lifted from their shoulders.  As these students were on to their next amazing thing before the end of the weekend- whether it’s preparation for a Lego Robotics competition, studying for final exams, or completing exit projects or going home to take a nap- they are all celebrating th

eir achievements.  They pose for photos, clean up their areas, and help Boyd and Bodmer tidy up the room for the day.

The educational system has flaws, most would agree.  Everywhere one goes, people have strong beliefs about how to fix it.

One thing is for sure:  This day exemplifies what education should look like:  Students being proud of their achievements and those achievements being something of which to be proud.


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