Projects for 2015 Assistive Tech


Originally posted May 12, 2014

I’m a science teacher, maker, and father of two. I’m on a mission to change the limits and perceptions of people with disabilities through engineering and digital fabrication tools. My idea and wonderful team won Twin Cities Startup Weekend EDU with




An amazing 3rd year of teach Assistive Tech Engineering and Entrepreneurship has come and gone.  This year our class also received numerous donations which resulted in a Silhoutette Cameo Vinyl CutterPrintrBot Simple 3D printer, lots of parts from Sparkfun and Adafruit, and a $1500 donation for a second (and larger) 3D printer.  Team teaching and a great group of students let me try out some new projects as we taught students how to become makers.  We made tangle free headphone holders, drawbots, and a few other activities to give students a taste of what’s possible and how to use the tools available.  Reflecting back on what worked and what didn’t; I’ve come up with a great lineup of projects for next year.

Project 1 – Cardboard Tables

Groups must design and test a table made from a limited amount of cardboard and packaging tape. How many books can your table hold?

Goal: the value or prototyping quickly, often, and how to work as a team

Materials: cardboard, tape, lot’s of heavy books

Project 2 – Business Cards

Students create their own business card with logo and personal motto.  The cards are then cut out on 110 lb card stock on the vinyl cutter

Goal: Learn to use design software and vinyl cutter

EquipmentVinyl CutterInkscapeGIMP (or other online graphics program)

Project 3 – Tangle Free Headphone Holders

This is always a fun one because it’s a shared problem and everyone has their own solution.  Groups prototype and design tangle free headphone holders.  First with paper, then on the computer where they create a 3D model (TinkerCAD or 123D Design) of their final prototype and print it out on our 3D printer.  Groups also create a market plan for their headphone holders and have to make a pitch for their product to the class.  Kickstarter is an amazing resource for real products that demonstrate the process that students go through in this project.  I stopped collecting examples at 20.  The company TurtleCell has a great video describing their product and the story behind it.  They even did a video chat with my class last year.  Hearing from two guys that made a real business out of what my students just finished doing was amazing.

Goals: Prototyping, 3D modeling, 3D printing, Marketing

Equipment: 3D printer, cardboard, tape

Project 4 – DIY Gaming Console

This idea seems so obvious I don’t know why I didn’t think of it earlier.  Last year our two day lesson using the Hour of Code tutorials turned into a 4 day programming party (that or it was going to turn into a mutiny).  I had never used Scratch in my classes before because we would just jump into Processing or Arduino right away.  The Hour of Code tutorials were a god send.  They teach the basics of programming into a fun game.  I had never heard, nor ever will hear my class so quiet and working so intently as they did during those four days.  Unfortunately, I didn’t have a follow up planned so we just left it and moved onto Processing and then Arduino.  Well after being reintroduced to the Makey Makey by our guest speaker and Assistive Tech wizard Jason Webb, I knew this was the secret.

Students learn the basics with Hour of Code tutorials, then create a game that uses the Makey Makey as a game controller.  If you’re unfamiliar, see this video about the Makey Makey, it essentially turns anything into a keyboard or mouse.  Students will create an original game and unique gaming controller that goes with it.  It’s another topic where everyone loves games but have their own opinions about what would make a great game.  Students could turn the whole room into a controller with making players run from one side to the other, or turn hovering balloons into buttons they must jump for, or maybe a bobbing for apples game…  I’m excited to see what they come up with.

Goals: Learn programming logic, what it takes to make a fun game, rethink video games and the controller

EquipmentMakey Makey, Computers, Scratch, building materials (wires, tinfoil, plates, etc.)  optional: 3D printer, vinyl cutter

Project 5 – Interactive Suncatcher

The last project before their final assistive tech project is to make an interactive suncatcher.  It’s essentially a tall narrow box with silhouette cutouts on the front and back and filled with electronics.  Students will learn to program the Arduino and wire up basic circuits.  We’ll experiment with different types of sensors (light, motion, sound, etc.) and learn that one simple circuit can have hundreds of different actions based on how its programmed.  They will solder together all of the wires and make a custom design for the front and back of the suncatcher.  I taught an after school class at the Mahtomedi FABLab where students made a Light Trinket.  It was very similar with laser cut wood and acrylic and an Adafruit Trinket controlling the LED strip.  It’s simple, challenging, teaches the basics, and looks awesome.

Goals: Program a microcontroller, see the world as inputs and outputs, circuits, soldering, advanced digital design/Vinyl cutter

EquipmentArduinosvinyl cutter, 5V digital RGB LED (adafruit Neopixels), sensors or this linkInkscape

Final Project

This is where the class becomes real.  Students have spent months learning what it means to be a maker and how to use the tools available to turn their ideas into reality.  I’ve been teaching project based classes for years and this was the only project where I’ve had 100% buy in.  Groups will spend 8 weeks inventing a device that will help a student with a disability.  Last year it was six groups making all kinds of great things for a student with severe cerebral palsy.  Their projects received a lot of interest from people in our district.  They want my team of maker extraordinares to create games, sensory devices, tools, you name it for their students.  For my students, they receive the pride of knowing that their hard work is going to help someone with a real problem.  Most importantly, they will meet this person, get to know them, and see the reaction on their face when they use the device they spent weeks of hard work on.  It’s an incredibly powerful thing that keeps my students going on their projects.  It’s something they can feel proud of and brag about to friends and family.  They didn’t just invent something, they changed someone’s life.  They know that if it wasn’t for them, that student would still struggle with the problem, and possibly never find a solution.  That’s why they spend months learning to program, prototype, solder, and work as a group.

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