Salt, Pepper and Band Saws: How High School Students are Improving the Workplace for People with Disabilities
By Kerry McGinley
When Hiba El Rassi saw Michelle Greenwell's delight at her team's prototype for the SourceAmerica Design Challenge, the high school junior knew this latest version of assistive technology was the one they'd been working toward for months.
"She started laughing – (Greenwell said) 'I like this! It's like playing Frisbee,'" El Rassi said.
The Design Challenge is an annual competition for high school and college students hosted by SourceAmerica, a central nonprofit agency with a mission to create employment opportunities for people with disabilities. This year it drew entries from more than 150 schools across the country. Teams of students pair up with one of the 1,000-plus nonprofits in the SourceAmerica network that employs people with disabilities to solve a workplace challenge. Students work closely with both employees and management to identify the issue and develop prototypes of technology to improve the work experience for employees with disabilities.
Throughout the fall semester, El Rassi and her teammates from team No. 1617 of Copley High School near Akron, Ohio, had been visiting Greenwell, who has developmental and physical disabilities, at Weaver Industries ProPak. They'd been working with Greenwell to craft ways to make it easier for her to assemble salt and pepper grinders, a task that was tedious, time-consuming and hard on Greenwell's hands. They worked after school, weekends and even Christmas Eve to refine the design to the point that it would work for Greenwell and her colleagues at the SourceAmerica nonprofit network member that employs people with disabilities.
El Rassi said she identified with Greenwell's struggle on the job. Her family, originally from Lebanon, recently became American citizens, a moment her Design Challenge team celebrated together over dinner at a local Chipotle. She said bridging the work gap for Greenwell reminded her of how she worked to learn English and earn her citizenship.
"Me learning English and talking to people in English and stuff, it's (similar)," she said. "I know her challenge is way harder than mine, but I related to it in a way."
In addition to being fun for Greenwell to operate, the final prototype of the Delta Snap cap assembler increased productivity and efficiency. It also secured El Rassi's team a spot in the Design Challenge Finals.
But hers is not the only team from Copley High to make it to the event April 5-7 in Washington, D.C. A second Copley team, No. 1616, came up with a way to speed up and dramatically improve the safety of a process that was slowing productivity at Weaver SecurShred, a division of the same nonprofit that employs people with disabilities to destroy documents.
Team 1616's project, TRIPS, streamlined the dangerous task of hand-feeding cardboard rolls into a shredder, which required a manager to perform because of the potential for injury and took several minutes to complete. The Copley students modified a band saw Weaver owned with a 40-horsepower motor and plastic shields so that an employee can now safely feed the tubes into the super shredder that grinds up the rolls in seconds. Productivity improved 750 percent, and the device created a job that a person with disabilities can perform rather than the manager.
Gregory White, a senior who was on the team from Copley that won fourth place in last year's Design Challenge, said he's proud of the work his teammates put in.
"It was very fun to go out of my comfort zone," he said. "This year we really had to get creative because of the safety issue as well as there's just not a lot of information on shredding paper like that."
This is the third year Copley High School has taken on the Design Challenge. Kirby Harder, the teacher who oversees the students' projects, said so many kids wanted to be involved this year he created two teams. It's an effective learning experience for the kids because it gets them out of the classroom and into the real world, he said.
"It's great because they get a lot of time to work in school, but it's all simulated," Harder said. "(With Design Challenge), they're given the opportunity to actually make a difference, solve a real-world problem that actually helps somebody. It's not just busy work. It's real hands-on learning."
Part of that learning is how to think of the projects as not just machines, but as solutions for people with disabilities.
"It was actually fun and exciting and something new," El Rassi said. "I'm not just doing something fun, I have to think a step ahead and make sure everybody can use something I design. I don't want anyone to feel uncomfortable or like they can't work on it."
The Design Challenge was conceived not just to offer students a chance to prove their engineering skills, but to also introduce bright young minds to the concept of an inclusive workplace, said Design Challenge Coordinator and Engineer Charissa Garcia.
"Copley High School has grown their Design Challenge participation over the years; it's particularly exciting that both teams made it to the finals," Garcia said. "By pairing engineering education with service learning, they're creating a strong sense of social responsibility. They'll carry this with them as they go on to college and eventually the workplace."
White said working on the Design Challenge has inspired him to pursue a degree in mechanical engineering at the University of Akron. He hopes to find a job similar to SourceAmerica rehabilitation engineers, who travel to nonprofits across the country to improve the workplace for employees with disabilities.
"Definitely this helped me affirm I want to be an engineer and what kind of engineering I want to get into," he said.
El Rassi, one of three girls on her team, said she plans to study civil engineering to prepare for a design-related career with the goal of improving lives.
"It was a great experience, we learned a lot," she said. "I think every girl who goes into the engineering field, we will redefine women's engineering in the future."