Claire Lindell has agency. At home, the 3-year-old can tell Michelle, her mother, if she feels like listening to a story, blowing bubbles or brushing her hair in whatever order she likes. Michelle Lindell said her daughter has quite a personality.
Claire is also nonverbal. She uses her eyes and a visual choice board built by students in Prior Lake High School’s Fab Lab, a small-scale fabrication and 3D-printing laboratory, to communicate better. Her example is one of many, as Fab Lab students handcraft equipment other students with disabilities might not otherwise access.
Claire’s board has four boxes to hold four items, such as books or toys, she can look at and choose. It’s an improvement on Lindell’s two hands, Lindell said.
Claire is part of the special needs program in Prior Lake-Savage Area Schools. Through this she sees special needs teachers, including a speech pathologist named Katherine Castor, who brought the idea of helping younger students to the Fab Lab.
“I was thinking about some equipment I couldn’t find on the market that I was hoping to have for some students,” Castor said. “Particularly, some students with limited communications can communicate through picture symbols, or pictures that represent different things. Some kids might do better with real objects — for example, choosing from a real bottle of bubbles versus a real snack item versus a real toy.”
Along with the choice board came tangible aids for storybooks. At the Fab Lab showcase May 30, for example, senior Ryan Spielman showed 3D-printed items straight from a children’s storybook — in this case, a donut from “If You Give a Dog a Donut” by Laura Numeroff and Felicia Bond.
“They feel the objects to help comprehend the story,” Spielman said.
Assistive equipment doesn’t stop with limited communications; sophomore Samantha Leong and her group created a play table that allows wheelchair users freedom of movement. Leong said the expensive tables made by large companies can be inefficient.
“The wheelchair couldn’t fit under (the one we saw),” she said. “It would inhibit play space.”
So in the fabrication laboratory, she and others built tables from various parts such as durable plastic and PVC pipe.
“We kept in mind that it would be wheelchair accessible, and we designed it for kids who want to play next to each other,” Leong said, pointing to the four open spaces around the table.
Taught by Jennifer Reinhardt, Dan Sikowski, John Maresh and Andrew Kurkowski, Fab Lab started up last year. Reinhardt and Maresh began the program and designed its curriculum. Dozens of student projects meant to assist others line the laboratory walls.
“It’s pretty humbling,” said Lindell. “I feel proud to be in a district that allows students to give back to their community and invest in their own needs as well. I also have a son who is really into building and exploring, you know. I feel like, oh, wow, I hope he can do this for other kids like Claire. I think about his future in the district and what an amazing thing these kids get to do.”