In Marissa Henry’s 6th grade English class at T. A. Dugger Jr. High School, students are learning more than sentence structure, comprehension, and grammar. They are learning real-world problem solving and empathy.
Through research, interviews, written reflections, and design, students created assistive devices to improve communication and mobility for people with disabilities, like the main character in a book they read called Out of my Mind. On Friday, they showcased their designs in a display for parents, teachers, supervisors, board members, and high school health science students.
“I feel the ultimate learning experience from this was that they learned to see people’s disabilities form different perspectives and the challenges they face, and now they’re more grateful for their own abilities,” Henry said.
As a class, they interviewed Dr. Josh Wandell, retired East Side principal who has been diagnosed with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis. He responded to their questions through his tobii device, which types and reads messages based on his eye movements. Even with his power wheelchair and tobii device, his mobility and communication are limited in ways most of the students had never considered.
“Of all of the different things they were exposed to, the interview with Dr. Wandell was by far the best part,” Henry said. “That helped them connect the book to the real world, and a lot of them say that he was their inspiration.”
They also gleaned some ideas from the school speech therapist Mrs. Shelley Smithdeal, who showed them different devices used to communicate. Many of their designs were improvements to devices used by Dr. Wandell or demonstrated by Mrs. Smithdeal.
When Dr. Wandell visited the school, he couldn’t come to their classroom because of the width of his chair, so Carson Guinn, Peyton Harrell, and Trenton Jenkins designed a wheelchair on which the big wheels retract, allowing it to move through tighter doorways.
Because of the sun’s glare Dr. Wandell can’t use his tobii outside. To solve this issue, Grace Whaley, Jasmine Starnes, and Savannah Smith designed the “Visuo-Vocative.” This set of glasses scans eye movement and transmits the signal to the tobii, allowing people with ALS to communicate outdoors.
Tabitha Tshuma and Abigail Bradley researched the auditory system of the brain and designed a cochlear implant that would regenerate muscles in the brain where muscle atrophy had destroyed them. This would send signals to the mouth and tongue and would work to repair the Broca’s area, which controls speech production.
Almost every display expressed appreciation for abilities and empathy for people living with disabilities. “We learned the most about appreciating what we can do to the best of our abilities,” said Ethan Henderson. “Like for example, if you don’t want to get up and put your clothes away in your room, you should think about the fact that your able to walk and do that – so we wanted to appreciate what we can do.”
Designers of the Visuo-Vocative said they learned that many people think perfectly clearly, but they aren’t able to communicate. Tshuma said she was really grateful for Dr. Wandell’s visit and that he spent hours typing out responses to their questions using his eyes.
In a message sent after the student showcase, Dr. Wandell wrote, “Ms. Henry, I can't express how much I appreciate your students. Thank you for doing this. I was impressed how well they listened. Please let them know that I am very thankful for every student's effort!!”
Henry said students met and exceeded her expectations. “I’m so proud of how they’ve owned this project and how they’re so sincere with their motivation to help others,” she said.