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Artistic Innovations for a Better World

By Jennifer Fogarty, communications content manager
Design and innovation students create tools to enhance the experience of medically fragile patients their age.
Traditionally, the design to entrepreneurship class is focused on the process of identifying a problem, understanding its user base, and designing a solution and a business model around the product or service. However, this year, when given a choice to create a possible money-making idea or help design products that would improve the artistic experience of medically fragile students in the hospital, all six groups chose the latter. 

“All of my students decided they don’t need to make a profit off of their designs,” shares Design and Innovation Educator Casey Walker. “Once they heard about the students at the Bernardy Center, it became about helping somebody and doing good for the world. Instead of a product that gets sold, some of them took it a step further to develop a set of instructions that students at other schools could take and do a service project to impact an even broader group of people.”

The Helen Bernardy Center for Medically Fragile Children, part of Rady Children’s Hospital-San Diego, is a skilled nursing and subacute facility for children and adolescents with multiple medical, physical and developmental delays. LJCDS worked directly with Sam Hovey, a moderate/severe special education teacher for the San Diego Unified School District Home Hospital and Transition Supports School. 

Ms. Hovey challenged LJCDS students to create tools to enhance the physical art-making experience for the patients, their families and caregivers. “My co-teacher, Kristy, and I had been looking for ways for our students with complex needs and minimal mobility to access art-making more dignifiedly and meaningfully,” says Ms. Hovey. “I shared an example of some adapted equipment that our team had previously created, including a switch-activated box placed on top of a guitar so that our students could access all that comes with playing guitar. It’s not just strumming strings but the instrument’s vibration, the sounds it makes, the smoothness of the guitar and the reaction of the people around you. I wanted to illustrate that things we enjoy have a multisensory aspect and that my students rely on being able to experience sensory elements that may not seem obvious.”

The design thinking process included numerous brainstorming and feedback sessions and a center visit for field research. “They asked Ms. Hovey a million questions,” shares Ms. Walker. “It was challenging but also fantastic because they were thinking outside the box and how they might accommodate different students with different abilities. And what might be appropriate for a hospital setting and benefit more than just one or two students.”

“One of my only expectations was that it had to be seen and valued as a peer-to-peer project,” explains Ms. Hovey. “I stressed that the students they created adapted equipment for were their age and, therefore, their peers. I asked them to think about what parts of their world were meaningful and what they would want to have around them if their world suddenly got significantly smaller.”

A variety of ideas were generated. For example, one group created a table that clamps onto the hospital bed to provide closer access. Another group designed a tool that allows the user to create a painting by moving a pendulum that holds the paint. 

One design group developed a remote-controlled car with heart-shaped tire tracks, so patients can facilitate a painting by moving the car. However, without a background in electronics, the design team struggled with making the controller work for their needs. Therefore, Ms. Walker connected the upper schoolers with her Middle School students who’ve taken robotics and coding and offered to finish the controller as part of their seventh-grade community action project.

A stuffed raccoon drew their attention when Lower School students visited the various tables during the design and innovation showcase. The stuffed animal played pre-recorded messages from loved ones to comfort patients in the hospital. One fourth grader offered to make a sewing pattern for different kinds of animals because the prototype wasn’t “very huggable.” Realizing they had a built-in focus group on campus, the Upper School team will share the next iteration with Lower School students for more feedback.

Part of the design process includes ideating, testing, failing, making adjustments and retesting prototypes. A valuable lesson is knowing when to change course or move on from their original idea. Some students design multiple ideas before landing on a final product.

Marcus Heppner and Cody Malter, both class of 2025, began with the idea of using eye-tracking technology to create a different control system for a virtual tour, but when they couldn’t find an opthalmologist who could support their research and coding, they moved on to their next idea. The final product is a silicone tactile toy with textures that change color for a multi-sensory experience.

“They ended up having the most successful project of the school year,” shares Ms. Walker. “And it’s not any of the first few they thought of. Marcus and Cody found the perfect balance between learning new and attainable things. They figured out a new process, a way to apply it and make it. Now they're just making more. Plus, they created an opportunity for the Middle School innovation class to design different shapes to build their 3D modeling skills meaningfully.”

“The fact that students took an interest in the betterment of the lives of their peers in different circumstances was really beautiful,” shares Ms. Hovey. I think this mentality is shown through the thoughtfulness of their projects. They took the idea of ‘access’ and ran with it. Each group thought of something unique and meaningful to increase my student’s ability to access different areas of instruction. While some projects are specifically for art, some will allow the Bernardy students to experience things they never had before. This project and collaboration was great practice in the idea of presuming competence. We focused on what the students at Bernardy could do rather than limitations due to their disability.”

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