Huddled around a deconstructed child’s toy, the group of teenagers high-fived when it whirred into action, its tiny parts spinning and making noise.
Their work — a complicated process of wiring, circuiting and engineering — means that special needs elementary students in their parish can play with toys just like their able-bodied classmates.
One of Pointe Coupee Parish School District’s therapists approached the kids, the STEM Academy’s robotics class, in December after she noticed some of the children with special needs at Valverda and Rougon elementary schools often couldn’t play with the toys on campus.
The students, particularly those with cerebral palsy, had difficulty pressing the small buttons that activate the toys, and to buy adapted toys can cost hundreds of dollars.
The result of those discussions was the hive of activity in the STEM school’s robotics class, where the kids are in the quality-control phase of their project.
They’ve worked for months with donated toys, cheap buttons and light switches and everyday materials to give the kids who struggle with motor skills a more accessible option.
Sophomore Jeremiah Bracken explained that the most common alteration is diverting the batteries from a toy’s standard switch to a car stereo cable that feeds into a folded flap of cardboard lined with metal foil.
When the user closes that flap with the foil, the stereo cable cords make a closed circuit that turns the toy on, and to turn it off again the user simply opens the cardboard flap. Much easier than tinkering with a tiny button.
“It’s good to get the opportunity to help the kids out, I like helping kids anyway and this is a good project to be able to do it,” Bracken said as he unscrewed a piece of plastic to expose the wiring of a donated toy.
He said there was plenty of trial and error throughout the process, and recently spent time redesigning their handmade battery interrupters from a square to a circle shape to ensure more a more precise connection, meaning a better quality product.
“Right now we’re in the redesign part, trying to make it safer for the kids and to make sure it works every time,” he said.
Their teacher, Hayley Capps, lets the kids work freely in groups, generally solving problems themselves or talking out their processes with the other students.
“It’s a big confidence booster for the kids once it works and it takes a lot of time and patience trying to find the right buttons, the right wiring,” Capps said.
The bulk of the specially adapted toys were delivered to Valverda and Rougon elementary schools just before those schools let out last week for the Easter break.
“They’ll match these toys up with stories, so they’ll read a story with the kids then they’ll be able to do the toy with the story, it’s really neat,” Capps said.
She said families, community members and staff in the district donated funds and old toys for the kids to work with, but many of the items were very cheap like the foil, cardboard, cables and light switches.
Junior Leonardo Torres said his class had learned about circuits briefly prior to taking on this project, but it was a learning curve.
“We started from scratch, before that we had no idea really what to do so we learned as we went,” he said. “We had someone come in and teach us how to solder, we did safety training, we knew a little bit about robots through this class already but we learned a lot.”
Principal Lacey Bueche said the donation pool still has funds left, so the school is ordering more specialty buttons to continue crafting the accessible toys.