With Compassion and STEM Skills, Triad High Earns a Spot in Design Challenge Finals

By Terrence Nowlin   

Challenge Unlimited had a sticky situation. A process for packaging an adhesive product at the Alton, Illinois, nonprofit employing people with disabilities was inefficient and resulted in broken pieces that had to be thrown away. Staff had to pick up the slack after hours.

But the engineering students of Triad High School in Troy, Illinois, devised a solution to clean up the process.

Triad’s SourceAmerica Design Challenge Team is vying for top prize in the national competition with a device it created to help improve the workplace experience for people with disabilities at Challenge Unlimited, a SourceAmerica nonprofit agency.

A packaging process had been creating so much waste for the organization that staff took on the tedious task outside of regular operations hours, according to April Imming, the director of production at Challenge Unlimited.

Employees were packaging kits for medical devices that included a patch repair used to fix inflatables such as wheel chair cushions. Employees were tearing strips of patches from a large roll into sets of three. They had difficulty counting patches and the adhesive side stuck to their fingers. If a patch section did not tear precisely on a perforation, it was unusable. The process was wasteful and cumbersome for employees.

Team member Zachary Winslow said the first step to tackling the problem was observing and asking questions.

“We sat down with one of the clients and we figured out what their needs were and how we could make their jobs easier,” Winslow said. “We were trying to come up with an initial design to fix the counting problem as well as the tearing problem. We made a bunch of prototypes to sort of hit that goal.”

The team entry into the Design Challenge measures out a length of patches so the correct perforation is torn. No more counting, no more sticky hands, no more wasted material.

Imming said that the team’s subject matter expert, an employee who struggled to perform the job without the device, is now working at 100 percent efficiency.

“Now my staff can be doing other things,” Imming said. “Most important in my mind is I’m putting someone to work. I’m giving them a job to do that makes it meaningful for them. That’s what we’re here for.”

While the team’s solution was a game-changer for people employed by the organization, she said it was the students’ compassion and understanding that impressed her the most.

“They’ve been absolutely amazing,” Imming said. “They understood that these people’s way of life is changed by just giving them that extra push to be able to do the work.”

Team member Rachel Bradshaw said experiencing the application of a solution added a new dimension to her education.

“Seeing … how an actual idea of yours can work or not work and being able to change it in real time to solve a specific problem is incredible,” she said.

Winslow said it changed his perspective as well.

“This was a great experience because it was a hands-on approach to solving a real-world issue with someone who needed help,” he said. “It was kind of an eye-opening experience for all of us.”

Andrew Brendel had that kind of experience in mind when he worked the project into the electrical engineering class that he teaches.

“It’s really worked well with what they’ve learned,” Brendel said. “All four are seniors, so it was a nice kind of culminating project for them as they’re wrapping up their careers here at Triad.”

Because the students are close to graduating, Imming said she recognizes how projects like this are important to build their perspectives about people with disabilities as the students begin to map the trajectory of their careers.

“I love working with people that have disabilities,” she said. “They’re a group of people that hasn’t been tapped. Teaming up with this generation … it’s such an inspiration and combining those two groups for me has been huge.”