By Claire Sowder, Heartland AEA Communications Specialist and Lauri Pyatt, WDMCS School/Community Relations Specialist
Smiles were contagious at Crossroads Park Elementary when fourth grader Sam Wedig received a very special gift from five Iowa State engineering students.
Sam has cerebral palsy and has difficulty communicating on his own. His classroom teacher, Lindsey Frandsen, and Heartland AEA speech-language pathologist, Andrea Richmond, had been looking for a way to help Sam be more independent with communication.
“Our team tried to find a way for Sam to communicate effectively and/or access an assistive communication device,“ Richmond said. “Unfortunately, his impaired motor skills greatly impact his ability make precise selections to use a computer or iPad independently.”
At a loss on what to do, Richmond’s brother suggested she contact the Iowa State University Engineering College to see if helping Sam would be a project any students would be interested in.
Five ISU mechanical engineering seniors – Tyler Kramer, Spencer Johnson, Erik Olson, Josh Pedersen and Henry Kelley – answered that call.
“Out of the list of senior projects, this was the only one that specifically helped someone in need,” Kelley said.
Richmond helped the ISU students learn more about Sam, the complications of his cerebral palsy, what motivated him and what devices and equipment had already been tried. The students worked during their classroom hours and in the evenings and took several trips from Ames to West Des Moines to meet with Sam and test out their ideas. Kramer calculated that they spent about 1,000 man-hours working on Sam’s communication interface.
“It has been such a joy watching the Iowa State students work with Sam,” said Frandsen. “With this new technology, Sam will not only be able to grow and thrive as a learner, but in years to come be able to access so much more than he once could. With Sam it has never been will he be able to get there, it has always been when, and this ISU team has truly helped to get him to where he wants to be.”
The students started referring themselves as “Team Sam,” and it didn’t take long for them to form a great friendship with their young client. Hugs and high fives were intermixed into the training sessions as Team Sam made improvements to the device.
The ending result was remarkable. The group outfitted Sam’s wheelchair with a removable desk and rotating arm that holds an iPad. Mechanics on the back of the chair work with a headrest that controls the mouse when Sam moves his head to the left, right, up or down. Once Sam lands the mouse on the letter he wants, he clicks a mouse to type it.
When the project started, Sam simply wanted to be able to type, but Team Sam was able to give him independence and an ongoing, endearing friendship.
“I’ve really enjoyed watching these guys grow,” Richmond said. “I can tell it’s made an impact on them and it’s made a long-lasting impact on Sam. Spending time with the guys means more to him than the equipment.”You can see how appreciative he is of his new friends by the smile that no doubt won’t fade for quite some time. When asked what he thought of the guys, through a huge smile, Sam exclaimed, “The ISU guys are really nice.”