A universal invention

Local students are building prototype sled for the visually impaired

By Samantha Bambino

The Times

Innovative thinking: These Bensalem High School students are part of Daniel Lubacz’s Engineering 103: Industrial Design class, a junior-level elective. This semester, they’ve designed a prototype sled for the blind and visually impaired that would warn of oncoming obstacles. SAMANTHA BAMBINO

It seemed like any old Thursday afternoon at Bensalem High School on March 15. But Daniel Lubacz knew better.

“They’re a little squirrelly today,” he said of his junior-level class. “Prom is tomorrow.”

Despite the impending evening of dancing and music, to see his students in action during seventh period, one would never know their minds were elsewhere. Scattered across BHS’s engineering lab was Lubacz’ Engineering 103: Industrial Design class, which was immersed in advanced coding, sketching and construction for its semester-long project — building a prototype sled for the blind and visually impaired that would warn of oncoming obstacles.

The idea stemmed from a talk Dr. Christa Bialka, a professor at Villanova University and friend of Lubacz, gave to the class on the concept of Universal Design. As stated on a handout Lubacz distributed to his students: “Universal Design is the design and composition of an environment so that it can be accessed, understood and used to the greatest extent possible by all people regardless of their age, size, ability or disability.”

Based on this idea, Bialka posed a question to the class — “How do you go sledding if you’re blind?”

According to Universal Design, there should be a way for all people, including the visually impaired, to enjoy this popular winter activity. After that initial conversation with Bialka at the start of the semester in January, Lubacz reflected on how his students took her question and ran with it, quickly agreeing that designing a sled for blind individuals would be their class project.

Though he conducted extensive research, Lubacz couldn’t find any previous work remotely similar to what his class wanted to accomplish. He was surprised. A sled with sensors would not only benefit individuals with visual impairments, but those with other disabilities as well as sledding beginners still hesitant on the slopes.

To help the students get started, Bialka coordinated a Skype session between them and LEVEL, a disabilities awareness group at Villanova that hosts various events around campus. During the session, the class learned firsthand from a blind LEVEL member what a person with a visual impairment would require from a specially-designed sled.

Lubacz described the interaction as an “aha moment.” At first, his students suggested including headphones on the sled, until the LEVEL member explained things from his perspective — since he heavily relies on his hearing, headphones would be more detrimental than helpful. The class was able to adjust its plans accordingly.

Bialka referred to this common mistake as “able-body privilege.”

“We don’t often think about what life would be like with a disadvantage,” she said.

Now, not only are Lubacz’ students thinking about the daily struggles of those with disabilities, they’re considering them from an engineering perspective. For the past three months, the small group of Engineering 103 enrollees has been pushing intellectual boundaries, working on code and building several small and large scale models and prototypes out of materials such as wood and metal. The plan for one such model is to include vibrating sensors in the handlebars to alert the rider of oncoming trees and obstacles.

For Lubacz, this type of hands-on learning is the primary structure of his Industrial Design class. Since all of the students have either had him or another engineering teacher before, he can skip over introductory topics like shop safety and 3D printing to jump into more advanced exercises. Though sometimes a topic — such as Universal Design — requires a brief lecture, for the most part, Lubacz’ students can be found collaborating in the lab rather than taking notes behind a desk.

“I don’t want to ever stand in front of them and deliver information,” he said.

Last year, his Engineering 103 class competed against more than 100 schools from across the state in the Governor’s STEM Competition. Its project, a detachable and portable wheelchair ramp, placed second.

Lubacz understands this year’s endeavor is more complex, and that his students probably won’t have a working sled with sensors by the end of the semester. But that’s perfectly OK. As long as they give the project their all and leave with a better understanding of the disabled community and its struggles, he’ll be satisfied.

“It’s something for them to experience,” Lubacz said. ••

Samantha Bambino can be reached at sbambino@newspapermediagroup.com