By Cheryl Toomey, University Relations Graduate Assistant

For many teachers, finding time to prepare the day’s lessons can be a challenge. Five UTC Engineering students have created a solution to this problem for one special education teacher.

Will Stewart, Nick Scoggins, Nathan Green, Leslie Dorsch, and Steph Flowers created a multifunctional space to solve that problem and to provide additional classroom storage. The sensory storage locker encompassed storage space within, as well as objects on the outside to quietly entertain the five autistic students in the class, to allow their teacher to prepare for the day or to serve as a reward for good behavior.

The cabinet features stimulating objects attached with neodymium magnets and ferrite magnets, each of which can hold up to twenty pounds, so that the teacher can rearrange them, but there is no chance of the children pulling them down.

“We did it this way because the teacher can modify it however she wants. She can put each item where it needs to be. So if she wants something down low, she can do that. If she wants them to reach for something, she can move it higher,” said Stewart.

The team included a mirror so that the children can practice making and recognizing facial expressions, which is particularly important for the autistic students in the class. They also included a liquid sandscape, a frame containing water and sand which can be flipped on its swivel stand to create new sandscapes.

“It’s visually stimulating and relaxing. It’s pretty mesmerizing even for me,” said Green.

The team also included pin art, the familiar toy that consists of a boxed surface filled with pins that slide in and out in a screen to create a three-dimensional relief.
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“We included this because of the texture. Some autistic children can be overstimulated by kinetics, or the feel of things, so this can help. Running their hands over this can be very soothing,” said Green.

The team originally planned to paint the entire cabinet with chalkboard paint, to give the kids a huge surface to draw on.

“Like all other kids, they love to draw. They like to express themselves and it’s very relaxing,” said Green.

Instead, however, the team created chalkboard people. They traced and cut out wooden figures, shaped like giant gingerbread men, and painted these with chalkboard paint. The paint is waterproof so the chalk can be washed away and drawn again, just like a real chalkboard. This means that the chalkboard people, like the rest of the toys, can be removed and stored inside the cabinet to prevent them from being a distraction when they aren’t in use.

However, coming up with the right ideas for the sensory storage locker wasn’t as easy as the group anticipated.

“We submitted ideas of things we thought the teacher might like attached to it, and we did not get the response we were expecting,” said Stewart. “We had a lot of ideas that we thought were great that didn’t get through, like a vibrating neck massager. She thought that sounded like too much. We had a hypnodisc that would spin around, but she thought that would be overly stimulating, the kids would stare at it for hours. Flashing lights were another thing that we thought would be a good idea, but didn’t work out.”

For Scoggins, the appeal in this project was the opportunity to work with the magnets.

“I liked this project because I was already interested in using magnets,” said Scoggins. “It was a big draw for me to work on something to do with that.”

“When we first picked the project, it stuck out as something straightforward, something we knew we could do. We all voted on it. We had all the ideas for it, and we worked really well together,” said Green. “I was the lead fabricator, so building it was my favorite part. We repurposed a lot of the materials. Research was fun, don’t get me wrong, but I feel at home in a shop.”

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