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Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Highlands High Student Puts Classroom Skills to the Real-World Test

Highlands senior Thomas Wade works with a student client to customize a tool he designed to assist with communication.

Thanks to a unique collaboration, students in Fort Thomas schools are using the technology skills they’ve learned to address real-world problems to help others in the classroom and the world beyond.

Highlands High School senior Thomas Wade, who helps run the Help Desk at the middle school, put his skills to the test when asked to use what he’d learned in engineering and technology classes to design and create a tool that would help students with communication challenges. Now students are using customized versions of his device to help them in school and in everyday activities.

It all started in February, when Nicole Ponting, a speech language pathologist at Highlands Middle School, attended a national conference on assistive technology, a field that has grown exponentially thanks to advances in technology and in the understanding of people’s needs.

"When I first started, we had devices with two switches, yes and no, and you had these bulky devices that kids would carry around. And they were so expensive. Assistive technology has come such a long way."

Today, technology is smaller, lighter and does much more, she said. In fact, most can be adapted to iPads and even cell phones. Students carry the same tools as their peers, and the equipment has become common in school and beyond.

"That’s a huge piece of this, the transition to adulthood and being independent. You see these devices all the time in work places now," she said.

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Ponting, special education teacher Andrea Smith and other educators decided to form a team to explore ideas and possibilities for assistive technology in the district. One idea was to tap into the resources available to create tools to augment and address some of the issues students using adaptive devices face.

Finding a solution only a few doors away

One issue involved students who have challenges with verbal communication. The students use Proloquo, a symbol-based Apple application on their iPads to help them communicate words and ideas. Symbols or pictures are laid out on a grid with each square representing a different word or idea. The app can be customized for students with different abilities, from those who may only be able to use a few symbols to those who are able to use multiple options and folders with many symbol choices.

The app is a wonderful tool, said Smith, but many of the students have some difficulties with digital dexterity and hitting the right symbol or key can be frustrating. Students who are frustrated tend to be less communicative and to lose interest in the activity.

At the conference, Ponting learned about a somewhat expensive plastic grid that can be snapped onto an iPad to help guide fingers and keep them where the user intends to go. The Fort Thomas team wondered if students with the skills and access to 3D printers at school might be able to make the grids for their fellow students.

Wade shows off the adaptive grid he created. He plans to pursue a technology career upon graduation.

They took their idea to Brian Mercer, a digital learning coach, and he knew exactly what to do. He charged Wade with creating and customizing the grids.

Wade explained the process: "The general idea is that we make the model of what we want in the Tinker-CAD program, then take that file and move it to an application called Cura, which allows us to save it as a file the 3D printer can print and use a SD card to transfer it to the machine."

Drawing from the skills he learned in the Fundamentals of Engineering Design and other classes, Wade used the middle school lab to make the grids. The lab is well-equipped with two 3-D printers, a laser cutter, a vinyl cutter, robotic arm and general equipment for woodworking and similar projects, he said. Students can use the equipment at any time if they are enrolled in the class and a teacher is present.

Improving communication and opportunities

Ponting says the new Assistive Technology team will meet regularly to discuss new ideas and to keep track of equipment in use across the district. The group has discussed ways to share information about what equipment individual students have used or are using to help track progress and to better select tools for other students and for future use. Another idea being discussed is the development of a lending library.

For the seven to 10 students who use the iPads across the district, it is too soon to have data on how well the grids have worked but Smith says she’s noticed less scrolling and less accidentally hitting the wrong button. She says as the technology is easier to use, students can concentrate more on the cognitive skills needed for communication, and that is a plus for all involved.

Director of Special Education Sommer Rosa says she is proud of how the educators have come together to find a solution that has made a difference for the students. In a letter outlining the project, she said the faculty and staff at Highlands Middle School have demonstrated the global leadership of Fort Thomas Independent Schools in their efforts to care, connect and create.

For developer Wade, who is working on his Apple Macbook certification in the Help Desk class, he is looking forward to exploring career opportunities in the field after graduation.

"I am hoping to join the workforce as soon as possible once I have finished school,” he said. For other students with an interest, he advises the engineering class, “It is a great class to join, and I would recommend it to anyone curious about any form of engineering, even if only to try it out and see how you like it."

He said the experience gave him an opportunity to build his client relationship skills as well as technical expertise. "One of the best parts of the class is you gain real-world experience making a product for someone, and you get to work with the people you make it for to ensure it is what they need."

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