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Holiday hackathon makes toys accessible for children with disabilities

December 17, 2019

Local roboticist teams adapt interactive toys for easier manipulation

Two local robotics teams just made the holidays more accessible for 20 local children who face challenges manipulating interactive toys.

Arizona State University's Desert WAVE and a high school team from Chandler, Arizona, called Degrees of Freedom, joined forces last weekend at CREATE at the Arizona Science Center, to “hack” toys for children with disabilities. Both teams were founded by the local Si Se Puede Foundation.

“When I look at the kids that we are able to help, I see just that: kids,” said Desert WAVE member Jessica Dirks, an ASU sophomore with a double major in human systems engineering and robotics. “They have hopes and dreams and love toys just as much as I do. The only thing separating us is the size of a switch — and that is something I am confident and capable of changing for these fellow dreamers.”

While commercially adapted toys exist for children with physical limitations, they can cost up to four times the retail cost of similar, off-the-shelf toys. The adaptations made during the event cost less than $5 in parts and required basic electrical skills, like soldering, provided by the two teams.

The modified toys help children develop functional skills like problem-solving, offer a foundation for socialization, and perhaps most importantly, have fun with toys.

“My favorite moment of this event was right after I finished adapting my first toy,” said Khushi Parikh, a sophomore at Gilbert Classical Academy and part of the Degrees of Freedom team. “When I tested the toy with the adapted switch, and it lit up, I felt really proud and humbled, too, because that simple mechanism could have a profound impact on someone's life. Seeing the toy in action helped me fully realize that.”  

According to Daniel Frank, an Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering faculty member and Desert WAVE’s adviser, the teams developed and built external push-button activators for the toys.

The hackers opened the toys, which sometimes required cutting stitches in fabric, and found the two wires that lead to the button that activates the toy. They stripped the wires and attached them to an audio jack, similar to what you use to plug in your headphones. The jack can be plugged into a large button switch that can be manipulated more easily — with an elbow, a fist or a head bop, for example — than activating a tiny sensor that requires manual dexterity some children do not have.

“This holiday hack gave me the chance to bring joy to a child that I may have never connected with otherwise,” said Andrea Schoonover, an ASU engineering junior. “I mean, what could be a better use of my time?"

Once the toys were tested, they were sewn back up and wrapped, ready to be delivered by ACCEL, the event’s co-sponsor with Makers Making Change and CREATE at Arizona Science Center. 

“I enjoyed being able to put my engineering skills to use while knowing it was helping others,” said Desert WAVE’s Noella Mikanda, a human systems engineering major. “Being able to work with younger girls with a passion for engineering was just the icing on top of the cake,” she said about the opportunity to work with the high school members of Degrees of Freedom.

Degrees of Freedom members enjoyed the collaboration, as well.

“I thoroughly enjoyed working with Desert WAVE during the hackathon,” Parikh said. “The ladies are all very bright, and apart from being great mentors and engineers, they gave me an insightful perspective on life as an ASU student. From ensuring that I understood each step of the adapting process and the function of the different tools we used, to joking around with us at lunch, our big sister team made me feel included, involved and valued.”

The mentoring wasn’t in just one direction —the Desert WAVE team learned a few things from the younger roboticists, too.

“My favorite part of working with Degrees of Freedom was trading soldering advice,” said Isabella Bushroe, an ASU engineering sophomore. “The girl I worked with, Natali Rodriguez, was much better at modifying the headphone jacks than I was, so I learned some tricks from her, and it was fun to get to know her along the way.”

ACCEL, which will be distributing the toys in time for the holidays, is a nonprofit organization that serves local community members with disabilities. Co-sponsor Makers Making Change is a nonprofit that connects people with disabilities to volunteer makers who build assistive technologies.

“I just want to give a quick shout out to everyone involved in Degrees of Freedom, Desert WAVE and Si Se Puede for everything they do," said Laura Roty, a Desert WAVE member and human systems engineering major. "The mentors especially have made so many wonderful opportunities, like Holiday Hack, open to me and to so many other passionate young people.

“Growing up, I never felt that I could involve myself in engineering but these wonderful programs have made me feel like I truly belong on the path that I have chosen!”

Top photo: ASU’s Desert WAVE and Degrees of Freedom, a robotics team from Chandler, Arizona, teamed up to transform interactive toys for use by handicapped children. Photo courtesy Daniel Frank.

Terry Grant

Media Relations Officer , Media Relations and Strategic Communications


Cronkite School partners with Arizona Community Foundation for yearlong effort examining teen suicides

December 17, 2019

Arizona State University's Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication, in partnership with the Arizona Community Foundation, is launching a special yearlong project to cover the rise of youth suicides in Arizona, exploring the underlying causes and looking for possible solutions.

The effort will involve students and faculty from across the school, including Cronkite News, the news division of Arizona PBS, and programs such as “Horizon” and “Horizonte.” The project will include a half-hour documentary that will be broadcast across the state as well as an in-depth website and continuing coverage of the topic. Download Full Image

The special project and in-depth coverage is made possible through a grant from the Arizona Community Foundation, which has worked for more than 40 years to improve the quality of life in Arizona through philanthropy. The project follows a similar, three-year cooperative effort between the Arizona Community Foundation and The Arizona Republic that focused on the foster care system. That lengthy investigation revealed deficiencies in the system and explored potential solutions. The success of that partnership motivated the foundation to fund reporting on another challenging topic of concern to all Arizonans.

“In a time where media is challenged to provide quality reporting, ACF has successfully partnered with local media to provide support for investigative journalism,” said Steve Seleznow, Arizona Community Foundation’s president and CEO. “This model of investigative reporting has enabled our community to better understand the significant challenges and opportunities on very difficult and complex topics.”

The Cronkite School has completed two other major projects in recent years that called attention to some of the state’s biggest challenges. In 2015, more than 1 million people watched a statewide simulcast created by the Cronkite School in conjunction with the Arizona Broadcasters Association. “Hooked: Tracking Heroin’s Hold on Arizona” focused on the growing perils of heroin and opioid use in Arizona. It aired on all 33 broadcast television stations and 93 radio stations in the state. “Hooked” received numerous awards, including an Alfred I. duPont-Columbia Award, the first time a student project won the award.

And in 2017, “Hooked Rx: From Prescription to Addiction” built on the 2015 effort by investigating the alarming rise in prescription opioid abuse in Arizona. Students crisscrossed the state to produce a multimedia look into Arizona’s dependence on prescription pain medication and the toll addiction takes on families and patients. The project included a 30-minute investigative documentary aired by every Arizona television station and most of the state’s radio outlets, and more than two dozen stories, graphics and videos. 

Youth suicide is a hugely complex issue that has gotten less attention than it deserves, said Cronkite Dean and Arizona PBS CEO Christopher Callahan.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently reported that the rate of suicide among America’s youth between the ages of 10 and 24 increased by more than 50% for 2007–17, compared with 2000–07. Youth suicide is now the second-leading cause of death among people ages 15 to 24 in America.  

“The increase in suicides among our young people is a frightening story that is largely untold and misunderstood,’’ Callahan said. “Through deep, fact-based and sensitive journalism, we hope to be able to tell these important stories — and help put a spotlight on potential solutions.”

The project would not be possible without the support of the Arizona Community Foundation, Callahan said. “We are indebted to Steve Seleznow for his vision and leadership.” 

Cronkite students will analyze the underlying societal, cultural, technological and medical causes behind the increase in youth suicides and explore efforts being employed across the country to combat it. The goal is to build awareness while also driving change and uncovering possible solutions.

“By partnering with Cronkite, we are confident the investigation and reporting of a difficult topic will provide opportunities to impact change and improve these statistics over time,” Seleznow said.

Callahan and Seleznow discussed the partnership on Horizon on Wednesday.

Visiting Professor David Ariosto, an author and journalist who has managed, produced and written for National Geographic, Time Magazine, NPR, Reuters, CNN and Al Jazeera America, will lead a group of students who will report and produce the documentary as well as multimedia stories. Also helping to lead the initiative is Christina Leonard, executive editor of Cronkite News, which already is publishing student work on the topic. 

Senior Associate Dean Kristin Gilger, who will serve as project manager, has assembled a team of experts to serve as advisers. “To tackle a topic as complex as suicide, we know that we need a lot of expert advice and guidance,” Gilger said. “This group also will help us provide training and support for students and faculty who participate in the work.” 

The advisory council consists of representatives from a number of public and nonprofit organizations that offer programs and services related to suicide prevention.

Advisory council members:

• Louanna Benslow, MSPI coordinator assistant in charge of suicide prevention in Navajo County.

• Natalia Chimbo-Andrade, director of community education and outreach, Community Bridges.

• Cori Frolander, area director, Arizona chapter, American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.

• Nikki Kontz, clinical director, Teen Lifeline and director of the Arizona Suicide Prevention Coalition.

• Aaron Krasnow, associate vice president, ASU Health and Counseling Services.

• Julie Mack, instructor, Arizona Complete Health, regional behavioral health agency for southern Arizona working on suicide prevention in schools and Native communities.

• Joronda Montaño, chief program officer, Not My Kid, Scottsdale-based nonprofit providing resources for parents and kids on healthy choices for youth.

• Kado Stewart, deputy director and camp director, OneNTen, nonprofit serving LGBTQ youth and young adults.

• Kelli Donley Williams, suicide prevention specialist, Arizona Health Care Cost Containment System (AHCCCS).

Assistant vice president, Media Relations and Strategic Communications