Shakopee High School engineering student Hunter Gromniesch held a little second grade, bow-haired girl named Vianny upright as she beamed at what Gromniesch and two other students made her. 

It was a sensory-friendly toy, complete with lots of little mirrors (she loves looking at herself), the color red (her favorite) and a white board. Vianny can’t communicate verbally or stand up on her own, but her case manager Sheila Matzke said as Gromniesch held her, clothed in Vianny’s favorite shade of red, she was wearing her “happy face.”

A room full of engineering students at Shakopee High School was buzzing with nervous excitement Jan. 10 before Introduction to Engineering students presented their capstone project to a group of experts. The 92 students weren’t nervous because they wanted good grades, but because each group was about to test their project on their “clients,” who were 10 young Shakopee special education students with physical challenges that impact their everyday lives. The engineering students were tasked with making one small aspect of their client’s life a little bit easier, and they only had two weeks to do it.

For Vianny, this day was like Christmas. Another group of students created a tool that would help her walk up the stairs on her own.

One group created a chair that helps a student sit upright while putting on his boots. Another group created an attachment for spoons and forks so their client could stabilize utensils while eating. The list goes on: twist-tie shoelaces so a student with shaky hands can tie his shoes without asking for help, a speaker that’s squishy for a blind elementary student with Down syndrome, a tablet holder engraved with two of Isaac’s favorite movie characters, Woody from "Toy Story" and Spiderman.

“I don’t want to let them down because they’re really excited to see this stuff,” engineering student Alexandra Boots, who helped create a sensory board for Vianny, said.

Hillary Runyan, the mother of a 13-year-old Shakopee student named Grace who has special needs that affect her in every aspect of life, has helped volunteer with the class since it first incorporated the program with special needs clients four years ago. Grace was one of the first recipients of an invention by high school engineering students, who made her a special tool that allowed her to hold a pencil or crayon because she loves to color. The second year, students made Grace a tool that allowed her to button her clothes without having to do fine motor work. Last year, students made her a special measuring cup that allows Grace to bake without spilling.

“Grace doesn’t have a whole lot of control in life,” Runyan said. “So when she gets to do this… she’s like, I am the boss. I get to tell them what I need. I get to tell them my favorite color.”

Forging connections

In addition to learning how to apply engineering skills to help solve practical problems within the community, Runyan said part of what makes this assignment so great is that engineering students gain empathy for the students they otherwise would not have been connected with. Before students begin the project, Runyan helps them understand how to effectively communicate with students who may not have the ability to speak in the same way. She teaches them how to ask direct questions that aren’t too broad and how to understand the specific challenges their clients face on a daily basis.

Runyan also said incorporating this program helps special needs students at Shakopee feel more part of the community.

“When the students see (Grace) out and about, they give her high-fives and ask how she’s doing,” Runyan said. “And it hopefully teaches them a little bit more empathy and understanding and opens their eyes to the fact that... maybe what they thought was such a big deal is really not a big deal. Because they can put their clothes on.”

Students who made an elementary student named Preston a storage box to put on his wheelchair displayed their creation to the panel of judges, with Preston listening intently behind them.

“Since we want him to be as independent as possible, we want him to be able to access his belongings without having to ask,” one of the presenters said to a group of judges who were either program alumni or engineers from Emerson in Shakopee.

After the presentation, Preston sat smiling in his wheelchair with the storage boxes beneath him. The old storage box he once attached to his wheelchair, he said, didn’t fit through the doors at school. These new boxes are narrow enough to fit through any doorway, and still big enough to hold his books and iPad.

Real solutions

The main goal of the engineering students was to give their clients more independence. But what they didn’t know was that their teacher, TJ Hendrickson, had the same goal for his engineering students. Hendrickson said each group is given the freedom to work with whatever issues their client is having.

This is not a paper airplane throwing competition. It’s a real-life problem and an opportunity to create a real-life solution.

This year will be the fifth year the high school engineering students have done projects for students with special needs, Hendrickson said. They are given a $30 budget, two weeks and the ability to use the wood shop, engraving tools and a 3-D printer to create their projects. Each group is split up strategically based on students’ strengths and weaknesses.

Before Hendrickson helped pioneer this assignment, he gave his students two weeks to create a boat out of PVC pipes and zip ties. Those assignments were fun, he said, but this project is so real.

The “realness” of these projects could be felt in the engineering room Jan. 10 as students stood sweating next to their cardboard presentations and 3-D printed creations. And as Gromniesch held Vianny, whose hair bow scratched his face as her smile stretched to her ears, one thing was clear: these weren’t just class assignments.

Maddie DeBilzan graduated with a journalism degree from Bethel University. She’s interned at Salon Media and the St. Paul Pioneer Press. Outside of work, she sifts through Goodwill clothing racks, listens to Ben Rector's music and goes on long runs.


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