Special needs students benefit from Beaver engineering project

Beaver freshman Jordan Henry and her team designed a game for New Horizon School students that uses two 6x6-inch dice to promote physical fitness and collaboration. Credit: Penn StateCreative Commons

MONACA, Pa. — Penn State Beaver freshman Jordan Henry has been volunteering at the New Horizon School, which serves Beaver County students with special needs, for years. She’s done hair and makeup for fashion shows, timed events at the Special Olympics, and even accompanied one student to prom.

So when Assistant Teaching Professor Jim Hendrickson and Instructor Sherry Kratsas charged students in their introductory engineering design course with creating a toy that promotes physical fitness for their semester-long project, Henry immediately had a client in mind.

She interviewed New Horizon’s physical education teacher and even dropped into the teacher’s lounge during lunch to discuss the project (it helps that her mom teaches at New Horizon). They didn’t hesitate to give Henry the go-ahead.

“Part of the project was that we had to observe latent needs, or the things that consumers need but don’t think to ask for,” Henry said.

After sitting in on several classes, she decided that any toy her design group — composed of Henry, Austin Young, Dylan Sanchez and Francesco Ferrara — created would have to be low-skill level with simple instructions that allowed participants to work together or compete against each other.

“To me, being competitive and collaborative go hand-in-hand,” Henry said.

So her group brainstormed a game that uses two 6x6-inch dice; one with a number on each face and another with an action on each face. The numbered die indicates how many times the player has to perform the action on the second die — jumping, spinning, skipping — and, if keeping score, how many points the player receives.

When Henry’s group presented their design and prototype to second-year engineering students, they got some less-than-enthusiastic feedback: “It’s too simple.”

Henry understood their critique from an engineering design perspective, but disagreed from a functionality perspective.

“It is simple,” she said. “But they didn’t know the audience. It had to be simple.”

Turns out, Henry was right. When she tested the final product — made from balsa wood and produced using the CNC router in the campus maker lab — the students at New Horizon loved the game so much they didn’t even bother to keep score. One student rolled kicking on the action die six times in a row and could barely contain his excitement.

And Henry witnessed a surprise upshot in her team’s design. They’d used Velcro to hold the wooden dice together at the seams. The sensory experience of pulling the dice apart and putting them back together enthralled the students nearly as much as the game itself.

“You think it’s just a dumb toy, but watching them I thought, ‘this is actually useful,’” Henry said. “It was really rewarding.”

Watching the design come together for Henry’s group was rewarding for Hendrickson, too.

“As an instructor, it was a joy to see the dedication, leadership and passion that she demonstrated during the execution of the project,” he said.

Last Updated March 27, 2018