Poolesville High School students developed their Folder Filler device with feedback from NIH employee Ricky Day.

By Kerry McGinley            

When the Poolesville High School Design Challenge competitors watched Ricky Day on the job, they saw potential.

Like his employers at the National Institutes of Health, the three Poolesville High School students saw Day’s capabilities, despite what some might perceive as limitations. He has cerebral palsy, which affects his fine motor skills. Part of his job as automation clerk requires him to organize paperwork. He told team members Alex Carbonell, Ashwini Thirukkonda and Dhruv Maniktala it was the most frustrating part of his job.

“We noticed that one of the things he had trouble with was taking out papers and putting them in envelopes,” Maniktala said. “This was generally something we could do without thinking. For him it required a lot more effort.”

Just fitting papers into an envelope could take as long as 18 minutes if Day didn’t ask for help. So under the supervision of Kevin Lee, who has coached six other Design Challenge teams from the Poolesville, Maryland, school, the students started prototyping solutions. They brought each iteration to Day for test runs and to get his feedback on their evolving design.

It was a learning process a classroom can’t replicate, Thirukkonda said.

“I think it’s really important to have the engineering and STEM knowledge, but I think the purpose of any STEM-related discipline is to help and make a difference,” she said. “That was the most rewarding part of our experience, actually seeing the smile on Ricky’s face and making a constructive and tangible change.”

The real-life learning lab is why Lee encourages his engineering students to participate in the SourceAmerica Design Challenge.

“It makes it all real,” he said. “It takes it from being a project in class to you’re actually doing something for another person that could potentially change their lives. That’s why we like it so much. Some of these guys, they do so much in their lives, but they don’t get a chance to do something like this.”

The final result of the shared learning was the Folder Filler, a device that enabled Day to independently fill folders in less than 2 minutes. Beyond improving productivity rates and job satisfaction levels, the team ADA Tech learned a larger lesson SourceAmerica member nonprofits across the country teach every day: people with disabilities are a talented, diverse group of people who have so much to offer.

It’s yet another benefit of participating in the Design Challenge that traditional classroom experiences can’t teach, Lee said.

“I think the biggest thing I’m hoping for these three and everyone else, it’s been an eye-opening experience to realize there’s a group of people in society a lot of people view as different,” he said. “These students have had a chance to realize no, they’re human beings trying to make a living and do a job.”

It’s a lesson the students have taken to heart.

“One of the great things about this, over the entire process, I’ve become more encouraged to step up and reach out to other people and be more willing to help them out,” Maniktala said. “With people I’ve just become more open and understanding of people coming from different backgrounds.”

Carbonell said he’s now interested in a career along the lines of SourceAmerica’s rehabilitation engineers, who work with nonprofits to improve the workplace for people with disabilities.

“It’s definitely changed how I look at not only working with people with disabilities but people in general,” he said. “It’s made me more open to receiving help from other people, working with people from a wide variety of backgrounds and specialties.”

For Thirukkonda, the Design Challenge has also instilled a stronger sense of service.

“I’ve considered an engineering career for a while now, but in terms of a broader perspective, I’ve come to realize no matter what I do, it’s going to be making a difference and helping someone,” she said. “I think that’s a lesson I’ll carry with me for a long, long time whether I’m in engineering or not.”