Design Challenge

By Theresa O'Neill

Our digitally-dependent workplace has heightened the need for science, technology, engineering, and mathematics skills―STEM―to stay competitive. To prepare students for the jobs of the future, educational institutions are finding new ways to incorporate STEM into academic curriculums, competitions, and after-school activities.

SourceAmerica, a federally-established nonprofit agency that creates jobs for people with disabilities, has helped high schools and colleges across the country expand their STEM programs through its annual Design Challenge competition. The idea is simple: While workplace technology is ubiquitous, its one-size-fits-all approach doesn't always meet the needs of a person with a disability. To participate, students partner with a local nonprofit agency to create adaptive technology that solves a workplace barrier for its employees with disabilities. At the end of the semester-long project, students gain an insider's view of the business world and how they can help people with disabilities achieve greater productivity, efficiency, and other areas critical to employment success.

"Creating jobs for people with disabilities requires flexibility and creativity," said Steve Soroka, SourceAmerica president and CEO. "If the Design Challenge shows students how they can use STEM when they're business owners and leaders to employ people with disabilities, then we've achieved something significant toward our mission."

Throughout the Design Challenge, students work closely with nonprofit management and its employees with disabilities to refine their solutions. They can also contact SourceAmerica rehabilitation engineers as part of its Mentorship Program.

"We can't provide students with design advice, but we can guide them on an idea level," said SourceAmerica Design Challenge mentor Paul Nishman. "We remind teams to ensure their solution works in every way for the person with a disability. It might be technically sound, but if something else is off, such as aesthetics, it might not be truly useful for that person."

Many schools participate annually in the Design Challenge, offering it as a capstone course, course credit, or as a club activity. Ohio University in Athens, Ohio, which placed second in the 2015 college Design Challenge, has been participating since 2007.

"The Design Challenge is a popular option for our Senior Capstone Project," said Gregory Kremer, Ohio University's mechanical engineering department robe professor and chair. "In our college town, we have a Community Demonstration Day, where students present their Design Challenge projects, among others, to show how they're making a difference."

The students' newfound perspective on how technical adjustments can change someone's quality of life in the workplace is what Soroka hopes lasts far beyond the end of the competition.

"Technology is there to make our lives easier," said Soroka. "Workplaces should continue to leverage it to make employment success a reality for everyone."