7th graders make prototypes of devices to help people with disabilities
7th graders make prototypes of devices to help people with disabilities

When Kyle Scully's seventh-grade English students read their summer reading assignment, they gained powerful insights into the lives of people with disabilities.

Her students read "Out of My Mind," the fictional story of Melody, an 11-year-old girl challenged with cerebral palsy. Award-winning author Sharon Draper, who lives in Cincinnati, wrote the book. Draper has a child with cerebral palsy but has said in media interviews that she did not base the story on her daughter.

"Melody's kind of like Stephen Hawking," Scully said. "She has no control over muscles, except her thumbs, and she can't talk. The story describes her life and helps shed light on what it's like to be living with a disability. It gives kids a different perspective, because her mind works perfectly."

Learning didn't stop after students discussed the book. Scully took it a step further with an interdisciplinary approach. "Their task was to create something that would help make Melody's life easier and help anyone with cerebral palsy," Scully said. "It allowed students to think about what would be helpful for people in wheelchairs, especially people who can't move."

Her students spent three class periods in the makerspace inventing devices to help Melody. "They were allowed to use pretty much anything they could find in the makerspace," said Jamie Back, Upper School STEAM teacher and Makerspace Coordinator. "We had cardboard, foam, craft sticks, wires, beads, ropes, straws, corks, CD's, wheels, felt, construction paper, duct tape, cardboard tubes, PVC pipes, fiberfill - all kinds of stuff." The seventh graders then wrote a short paper about how the devices would be helpful for Melody.

"This is called the communicator," 7th grader Nathan Hetzler explained as he showed his finished project. "It will help Melody speak and will allow her not only to speak English, but every known language in the world. This is like using future technologies, but with these earbuds, if someone speaks in a different language, the earbuds will translate it and say it into her ear in English. And, through her mind, she can talk, and it will go out into the speaker."

Addie Robillard envisioned a way to help Melody be more mobile. "I'm making this wheelchair that has a foldable ramp so Melody can go up and downstairs without having to be lifted out of her wheelchair. Also, it will be motorized so no one has to push her around all day," Addie said. Among the materials she used were old CD's, cardboard, duct tape, foam and old dolly wheels.

Meanwhile, Madeline Fraley was fine-tuning her project. "This is the outfit machine, so when Melody gets in her wheelchair, she can put her wheel on one of these and select what clothing she wants to wear. It goes through this little tube, and the clothes come out," Madeline said. She was inspired to create the machine because Melody was frustrated by not being able to choose what to wear on her own.

By reading the book, students got a glimpse of the frustrations and difficulties that some people with disabilities face, but many also thrive despite limitations. For Scully, the topic is personal. Her best friend, who was her college roommate, has muscular dystrophy. "She can move her upper body, but she can't move the lower part. She was the only one on campus in a wheelchair. She's actually running for city council, which is cool."

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-Cindy Kranz