Linda Sue has one of the most challenging jobs at Challenge Unlimited Training Center in Swansea — tearing patches for wheelchair cushion repair kits.
It was so tough that the position was almost discontinued for disabled workers due to its unusually high scrap rate, according to April Imming, production manager for Challenge Unlimited, an organization that helps provide employment opportunities for disabled people.
Imming said the waste was due to a number of factors like the patches getting stuck on workers' fingers, as well as counting problems, as the patches had to be ripped in groups of three. These issues also caused Linda Sue’s work to drop below productivity levels to where her pay changed from an hourly wage to a piece rate.
Then, in October, students connected with Triad High School’s engineering curriculum, met Linda Sue, and everything changed.
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SourceAmerica Design Challenge
Andy Brendel, an engineering and electronics teacher at Triad High School, had earlier approached seniors Cameron Meyer, Kaitlyn Dempsey, Rachel Bradshaw and Zack Winslow and asked them if they would like to participate in the SourceAmerica Design Challenge.
"This is a great group of seniors I've had all four years, and they jumped to the challenge," Brendel said.
The annual event is a national engineering competition, held at both the high school and college level, that asks students to innovate workplace technologies for people with disabilities. The students' ideas are then used to create employment opportunities and increase productivity for their project partners.
"The whole contest is really about applied learning for the social good," Brendel said.
Triad partnered with Challenge Unlimited and Linda Sue. The students developed a wooden device for Linda Sue that holds the patches down using a lever and then tears them in groups of three using a perforated edge.
"The most important part about this project was actually getting to help her and having a device that actually kind of changed her life a little bit," Winslow said.
Before the device, Linda Sue was able to cut about 62 patches a day. With the device, she could do 101 patches — 62 percent increase in productivity.
"She would tear them effectively and easily each time," Bradshaw said.
This was Triad's second year participating in the challenge SourceAmerica Design Challenge. Last year, the school's team made the top 15.
But in March, the students learned that their collaboration with Linda Sue landed them in the top five of the 103 schools participating in the challenge nationally.
"I didn't expect it at all," Dempsey said.
That meant the students would get to fly to Washington, D.C., along with Brendel, Imming and Linda Sue, to present their project to legislators and industry professionals.
"I think we all pretty much practiced the entire time from March to April, whenever we went in to D.C.," Winslow said.
When they arrived in at the Capitol on April 9, the students participated in workshops and seminars to learn more about disabilities in the work place. The next day, the seniors got to meet their local legislators.
The met Sen. Dick Durbin and members of Sen. Tammy Duckworth and Rep. John Shimkus’ staffs.
"Meetings with senators was definitely intimidating. But, underlying all of that, they just want to know what we are all about," Meyer said.
The same night, the students participated in a reception where they could show local citizens their project.
"It was also really cool to meet all the judges," Dempsey said.
The judging panel was made up by Tizoc Loza, corporate manager of Northrop Grumman's Global Supplier Diversity Programs; Dr. Proctor Reid, the director of the National Academy of Engineering; Dr. William Rouse, the Humpreys Chair of the Stevens Institute of Technology; Dr. Anthony Tether, the former director of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency; Frances West, the founder of FrancesWestCo; and Paul Nishman, a productivity engineer with SourceAmerica.
The next day held the moment for which the students were waiting — the presentation and the awards ceremony.
"The way that they announced the winners was definitely stressful," Meyer said.
The winners were announced from the bottom up. With each school that was called, the students knew they were getting closer to the top. Until, finally, they were called for second place.
"It was really just kind of an emotional time, too, because we just spent the last three days studying our presentation until 12 (a.m.) and waking up at 6 (a.m.)," Meyer said.
The students said they were happy to bring back their second-place honor, but knowing that their accomplishment had made a difference in the life of another was the best reward.
"It's really cool to develop something that will actually help somebody," Wilson said.
"She always thanks us for it and what not. She just loves working with us, and we love working with her," Bradshaw said.
Moving forward, each of the students will pursue engineering or technology in some shape of form.
Meyer and Dempsey both play to attend Southern Illinois University Edwardsville. Meyer plans to pursue an engineering degree, though he has yet to choose a specific field. Dempsey will pursue an electrical engineering degree.
Winslow will attend South East Missouri State University to study computer science with an emphasis in cyber security.
Bradshaw plans to study flight science at Saint Louis University. Bradshaw will also return to Triad to mentor next year's SourceAmerica team.
"I know the school and district are so proud of these four," Brendel said.