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Students ‘engineer’ devices to help their classmates

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Submitted to the Spencer Magnet

During the 23 years Andy Henderson has taught in Spencer County, his program has undergone numerous changes including transitioning from industrial arts to technology education his first year on the job.

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Spencer County High School was one of three schools in Kentucky with a pilot technology education program. The program was a huge success and now includes pre-engineering and problem-solving, manufacturing, construction, communication, power energy, architectural modeling, and engineering design.  
Just this year, Henderson, along with science teachers Tim Giles and Josh Toebbe and math teacher Kenny Thornsberry, introduced the STEM program. STEM, which stands for science, technology, engineering and math, focuses on blending concepts from all four disciplines.
SCHS technology students are all members of the Technology Students Association. They compete with other TSA chapters on design projects and presentations.
Robotics is one area of competition. Students participate each year in a state competition hosted by the Department of Engineering at Western Kentucky University. Henderson’s students have earned first and second place awards during the nine years they have competed. In 2011, they received Best Design Presentation and Best Constructed Robot.
Over the past few years, Henderson’s advanced engineering students have designed and built adaptive equipment for students with physical disabilities.  One such item was a stool that aided a student when transferring in and out of his wheelchair.
Several years ago, after meeting with the school’s vision consultant, Henderson’s students designed and built what is referred to as “a little room.” It is a student-size sensory learning center for a visually impaired student with limited mobility. Similar items sell for $500 to $1,000 in special catalogs. Henderson’s class only spent $35 for materials.
At the beginning of this school year, Henderson spoke with special education teacher Kathy Fickel, saying his engineering students were looking for a design project. He asked Fickel if her students needed any adaptive equipment.
“Oh, yes,” she responded. “The physical therapist is concerned about students in wheelchairs because of their limited mobility and a tendency toward poor posture. The therapist would like them to do activities where they have to sit up straight and reach out and up with their arms.”
Fickel explained to Henderson’s class the types of activities she would like her students to be able to do independently. Within a month, the project was complete. Henderson’s students designed a portable, multi-purpose two-sided board.  One side is a white board for writing and drawing. The other side contains Velcro and movable clips.
“It’s light-weight, easy to store, and I can roll it to the student or they can wheel up under it.  It’s perfect,” Fickel said.
Brittany Hill is a student in Fickel’s class and the one who needed the board the most.
“Oh, man!” Brittany said, grinning, the first time she used it.
 “I really love the way I can attach an iPad to the board,” Fickel said. “The iPad is a highly motivating learning tool and now Brittany has to sit up straight and reach her arms out to use it. Her independence has increased tremendously.”
Fickel and Brittany were not the only ones to experience such satisfaction. Their excitement impacted Henderson’s students as well.
“Designing and building this equipment helps them understand students with special needs. They feel a connection. They can make a difference,” Henderson said.
Such design projects could easily lead to a career one day. Nursing homes and assisted living facilities are always in need of equipment to aid the safety and independence of their patients.
Henderson’s technology program is career focused. One previous student went on to be mechanic for the U.S. Air Force and plans to become a pilot.
Another was a mechanical engineering student at UK and is now an engineering consultant in Australia.  Two former students are employed as information technology specialists for Humana. Another former student does mechanical drawings for military equipment and weapons.
One of the school district’s technicians is former student Kyle Murphy, who was part of Henderson’s Student Technology Leadership Program, or STLP. These students receive hands-on experience by helping solve various computer problems in the school. Murphy, who went on to earn a degree from ITT, said the program helped jumpstart his career.
“My job is to lay the foundation, provide basic skills, and point them down various career pathways,” Henderson said. “The most rewarding part of the job is learning that they made it.”