Center for Digital Education & Converge: research in education technology for K-12 and higher education

Engineering Class Creates Safe Haven for Child with Autism

on January 11, 2012

This past semester, students in an engineering class at The Community College of Baltimore County didn't just design something cool.

They actually helped a 9-year-old who has autism. In the process, they applied the skills they learned in "Introduction to Engineering Design."

By working with an organization called V-LINC that serves people with disabilities, Engineering Coordinator Laura LeMire met the boy and his mom. Noise really bothers him, and he frequently hurt himself and others when typical household or neighborhood noises scare him.

To help him, LeMire's engineering students created two quiet places in his house. In his bedroom, one team built a canopy bed with a curtain around so he could shut the light out. The other teams worked on a basement room. 

One group focused on the HVAC work and building the room. Another group came up with flooring and wall protection, including sound proofing and cushioning. The last group figured out how to protect windows from damage if he went into a fit.

In the upstairs bedroom, engineering students designed the window to allow air flow, open up so that it wouldn't present a fire hazard and incorporate a way to block out the sun while protecting the glass. This design was challenging. To deal with the sun issue, they installed shades behind the window guard. | Photo courtesy of Laura LeMire

In the basement, the students built the wall and made a door to fit an unusual space. On the door, they included a small Plexiglas window for the child's mom to check on him. On the wall, they installed wiring for a radio to play calm music. | Photo courtesy of Laura LeMire

On feedback forms, "The majority of the students say this project was the most worthwhile part of the class because they actually are working with a client and they can see how what they do as an engineer can impact someone's life," LeMire said.

To design the room and the bed, some of the team members used 3-D modeling. Then they took their designs to the college's Fab Lab, where they created a prototype.

This project gave the students experience with three different engineering disciplines: electrical, HVAC and civil. Along with the technical skills they put into practice, students honed communication and project management skills.

In fact, one student who later went to the University of Maryland told LeMire to keep doing these types of projects. The student's peers at the university were jealous that she did a project that directly benefited someone while she was at a community college.

In many four year colleges, classes work on a common project like a chemical-powered car because the universities have so many students, LeMire said. While those are neat projects, they're not necessarily helping a person like this project did.

The child's mom told LeMire she had never seen him that excited.

"He was literally jumping up and down," LeMire said.

With his new bed and quiet room, he now has somewhere safe to go when he's afraid. And the engineering students know that what they're doing really helps others.

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Tanya Roscorla

Tanya Roscorla covers education technology in the classroom, behind the scenes and on the legislative agenda. Likes: Experimenting in the kitchen, cooking up cool crafts, reading good books.



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