Central Oregon students design Assistive Technology for peers with special needs


In the fall of 2019, a group of local middle and high school STEM students came together with their Special Education peers to design and create assistive technologies that make everyday challenges easier for people with disabilities.  The students are part of the AT Makers project, a unique collaboration between the Assistive Technology (AT) and STEM Hub departments at the High Desert Education Service District. The AT Makers students work together to solve real-world problems through human-centered design strategies.

“Our students are ready for this kind of learning. They want to engage in work that makes a difference. We always strive for hands-on learning, but this goes beyond that—it brings together different groups as peers. Middle school kids, students in Life Skills classes, high school students from the technology classes. They develop relationships and learn from each other,” said Tracy Willson-Scott, STEM Hub Coordinator.

The AT Makers class is based on ATMakers.org, a national movement that connects people who experience physical and cognitive challenges with makers—people with the skills and technology to create customized solutions to challenges in mobility, communication and independent living. Assistive technology can range from low to high tech. By using human-centered design principles, technologies are developed to match the abilities of the user.


I4Education: bringing great ideas to life

Here in Central Oregon, AT Makers began as the brainchild of Willson-Scott and Wendy Burkhardt, Assistive Technology Specialist at HDESD. Inspired by the impact of the national organization, Burkhardt and Willson-Scott drafted the curriculum and applied for a grant from i4Education, the innovation arm of the HDESD.

 “When Wendy and Tracy brought this innovative idea forward through the i4Education process, we knew it would be a win on so many levels,” said Anna Higgins, chief strategy & innovation officer for HDESD and executive director for i4Education. “The AT Makers program is a shining example of how our educators, who are closest to the problems that need solving, are driving an extraordinary movement towards innovation in education.”

 According to Higgins, local nonprofit i4Education brings educators together with entrepreneurs to incubate, investigate and fund innovative solutions to problems in education. The three-year AT Makers project, launched in September of 2019 in Redmond, was derailed by COVID-19 when the schools shifted to remote learning. In Fall 2021, the AT Maker class is scheduled to return to Obsidian Middle School and Ridgeview High School, building on the work that began last year. The HDESD plans to expand the project into additional Central Oregon school districts over the next two years.


Learning from each other

“Connecting our different student groups is at the heart of AT Makers. When students are given a scenario to work on, they actually get to know the person they are solving the problem for. By partnering with Life Skills students, they experience what barriers their peers with disabilities encounter during their day. Together they brainstorm ways AT could make life easier,” said Burkhardt.

Along with learning about the challenges of a disability, students gain skills in designing and building devices. Class modules include hands-on practice in soldering, connecting batteries and switches, and using a variety of materials. The high school students, many of whom participate in robotics and other STEM activities, help mentor the younger students. Their expertise guides the develop of prototypes for assistive technology products, while keeping a focus on ergonomics, accessibility, and the user’s individual needs.

 “The process inspires students to see their school through the lens of someone facing different challenges,” said Burkhardt. At Obsidian Middle School, for example, STEM students participated in the design of sensory spaces. These spaces allow students who feel dysregulated to take a break, then return to class ready to learn. That project led to involvement with designs for sensory stations along a hallway, to help any student stay focused and grounded. As part of the planning, students had to consider how these spaces would be monitored, and how to measure the success of the design by tracking the users’ experiences in the spaces.


Hands-on learning and soft skills

At Sky View Middle School in Bend, Principal Scott Olszewski sees the AT Makers project as a perfect fit for their existing Integrated Design Studio class. “This is more relevant than reading about disabilities or genetics or product design; it’s more real than a power point or an essay assignment. This is solving a problem for a person you know, starting with meeting that person and taking it through to fruition,” said Olszewski.

 Also funded through an i4Education grant, the Integrated Design Studio creates a cohort of thirty students who learn design thinking through language arts, science, and a design elective. Building in the AT Makers curriculum would take the Integrated Design Studio to the next level. “This kind of design-thinking generates empathy in students beyond an emotional connection. These kids learn an empathy where they understand another person’s experience, and tailor their designs to fit those needs,” said Olszewski.

 Another aspect of the AT Makers project that Olszewski appreciates is the emphasis on communication skills. Asking good questions and careful listening is considered part of fine-tuning a design that fits the user’s abilities. “As future designers, these kids need to get really good at finding ways to help people articulate their problems,” he explained.


Resources for educators and others

For teachers and community members interested in incorporating AT Makers concepts into their work, Burkhardt and Wilson-Scott have added AT Maker science kits, books, and lesson plans to the STEM Hub lending library, including instructions and supplies. The kits include simple battery interrupters, soldering supplies and instructions, and switches to make toys and gadgets more accessible.