When Calera High School math teacher Chelsea Rutledge was thinking of projects using technology tools she learned about at the Shelby County STEM Academy this year, one thing kept coming to her mind – assistive technology devices that would benefit students with special needs.
Rutledge was one of about 50 teachers who submitted applications to participate in a year-long STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) Academy hosted by the Shelby County Schools Technology Department. Teachers participating in the academy have attended long-term, sustained professional development throughout the year to learn about various technology they could take back and implement into their regular curriculum. They didn’t know it when they first applied, but each participant got a surprise gift of the very technology they were learning about to take back to implement at their schools.
Rutledge was part of the secondary teachers’ academy participants who received training on the Makey Makey STEM packs, which use alligator clips attached to any conductive material to create just about anything you can imagine. As she began to imagine ways to implement the technology with her math students, Rutledge said she kept thinking about the students in Donna Sinquefield’s special needs class who could benefit from assistive devices created with the Makey Makey inventor kits.
“I presented my students with the idea, and they were a little overwhelmed at first,” Rutledge said. “But they started interviewing the students with special needs to discover their interests and hobbies. Each device that you see here today was created with a specific student in mind.”
PJ Manzey, for example, really likes classical music so Rutledge’s students worked to create a piano keyboard make out of foil. As PJ steps on the piano keys, the circuit conducts energy back to the computer program that plays the musical sound.
Jeffrey Palmer loves video games, so Rutledge’s students created a basketball video game for him to play.
Rutledge said she was amazed to see how the students tapped into each aspect of STEM with the project. Her students became engineers and problem-solvers who had to go back and tweak aspects of their designs that didn’t work exactly like they thought they would. But the thing that stood out the most was how they grew as leaders as they interacted with their peers with special needs.
That wasn’t lost on Sinquefield either, who was very impressed with the leadership displayed by the 9th-grade students who participated in the project.
“To see these 9th-grade students, whose minds are usually all over the place, transform into these compassionate little human beings was amazing to watch,” Sinquefield said. “The devices that they made for my students have made them feel so special. They really honed in on their special interests.”
William Babcock, one of Rutledge’s students, said he really liked learning about circuits and conduction in this hands-on way. It has sparked an interest for him to possibly combine the skills he is learning in carpentry with an emerging interest in engineering.
Lauren Woolley, Technology Coordinator for Shelby County Schools, was on hand with the technology resource teachers who helped train teachers during the STEM Academy workshops. To see what they had taught the participants be put into practice at the classroom level was very rewarding to see.
“It is so exciting to see what we are passionate about and the technology that we know is emerging in the real world actually come to life and happen in the classroom,” said Tracie Davis, a technology resource teacher for the district.