From the Classroom to Capitol Hill: Wethersfield High School Finalists Head to SourceAmerica Design Challenge Championship

Students to demo breakthrough workplace technology for people with disabilities in Washington April 7

By Theresa O'Neill

As finalists in the SourceAmerica Design Challenge, a national engineering competition benefitting people with disabilities, students from Wethersfield High School in Wethersfield, Connecticut, will travel to the nation's capital next week to spread an important message to businesses and lawmakers: assistive technology can be a potent equalizer in the workplace. SourceAmerica is a central nonprofit agency that creates employment opportunities for this underserved group.

The Wethersfield team, composed of budding engineers and those with multidisciplinary interests, is part of an after-school engineering and science club led by Wethersfield teacher John Wysmuller. They spent hours of their free time, including weekends and holidays, working with CW Resources in New Britain, Connecticut, a SourceAmerica network member nonprofit agency that employs people with disabilities, and Facility Manager Chris Cauffman. According to Cauffman, many of CW Resources' employees have varying degrees of dexterity and visual impairment. For this reason, daily tasks such as labeling envelopes can be difficult. The students got to know the employees, observed them at work and noted their challenges. They applied science, technology, engineering and mathematics skills to create a motorized device that required significantly less dexterity. Using a laser light sensor, the machine helps detect proper envelope positioning, and the push of a button advances the label roll and label onto the envelope. The employee then lightly presses the label to secure it and complete the task.

Teacher John Wysmuller, who leads Wethersfield's after-school club, served as one of two Design Challenge coaches. Susan Fennelly, a retired Wethersfield High School teacher who led the engineering and science club prior to Wysmuller, served as one of two mentors. Fennelly was the first to spur Wethersfield High School's participation in the Design Challenge years ago, Wysmuller said.

On April 7, the team will travel to Washington, D.C., to give a live demo of their device to a panel of judges who will decide the winners of the championship. Earlier in the week, students will go to Capitol Hill to meet with their congressional members, underscoring the importance of advocacy for a mission like SourceAmerica's. The Wethersfield team will meet with Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Connecticut, who also happens to be a former student of Fennelly's.

No matter the outcome of the championship, Wysmuller will offer his science and engineering club the opportunity to participate in SourceAmerica’s Design Challenge next year. What’s more, they hope more schools will join them.

“We set up a booth at our school where the teams talked about the Design Challenge and their experience so more students could learn about it. We’ve also talked to other schools to generate interest,” Wysmuller said. “While more schools competition makes it harder for our team to win, it also means that more people with disabilities are being helped. That’s what’s most important to us.”