A young student at Siskin Children's Institute uses assistive technology to learn to read. (Contributed photo)

Sale Creek Middle School students recently partnered with Siskin Children's Institute to design assistive technology devices while learning about the needs of children with disabilities.

The project was made possible thanks to Sale Creek's Volkswagen eLab, one of eight state-of-the art digital fabrication labs that opened in select Hamilton County schools in August 2017.

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Students from Sale Creek Middle School tour Siskin Children's Institute to get ideas for their assistive technology project. (Contributed photo)

A collaboration between Volkswagen, the Public Education Foundation and the state of Tennessee, the labs give students access to technologies like automated manufacturing equipment, 3-D printers, robotics, microcomputers, renewable energy kits, and digital design tools.

"What set this project apart was rather than staying in the classroom and researching it on their own, they actually saw it being used firsthand," said Julie Mikel, director of Siskin Early Learning Center.

Eighty seventh-grade students visited the Early Learning Center in late January and took a tour to see children using assistive technology to learn, play and communicate with their peers. Such technology can be as simple as a board plastered with letters, phrases and the like to help nonverbal children communicate, or as intricate as computer software that turns brain waves into speech.

"I was really impressed with the students. You never know what you're going to get with a group of seventh-graders coming into a preschool, but they seemed really interested in assistive technology," said Amanda Robins, education coordinator with the center.

After the initial visit, the students worked in teams and used the resources in the digital fabrication lab to create devices that would assist a person with disabilities.

The students were encouraged to think about things they enjoy doing every day and to design a device that incorporated simple machines and could help a child or adult with disabilities, said Cara Stiles, VW eLab specialist at Sale Creek who spearheaded the project.

In March, educators from Siskin attended an event at Sale Creek Middle to see, try out and judge the student-designed devices.

Most of the middle-schoolers created devices related to sports and play, Robins said. One group of students created a hand that could help a person dribble a basketball. Another team developed a trampoline with a chair that could be used by a person without the ability to stand.

"We were really impressed with their creativity," said Robins.

An elaborate ramp and pulley system for playing with toy cars was the device judged to be the best, she said.

Stiles and the educators at Siskin hope the partnership can continue next year and potentially include more students.

"We believe that opening their eyes to diversity will expand their worldview, cultivate deeper learning, and increase their social and emotional awareness," Stiles said.