By Tatiana Peralta

Every winter, high school and college students from around the nation participate in SourceAmerica's Design Challenge. Students form teams and dedicate themselves to one mission: designing the best solution or device to improve earnings and minimize barriers in the workplace for professionals with disabilities.

Before the students start designing, we ask them – "Why are you participating in this year's Design Challenge?" Every year, students provide heartfelt answers that show our team why service learning is such a powerful tool in the classroom. We spotted some similarities and found the top three reasons students participate in the SourceAmerica Design Challenge.

Creating positive change

My primary reason for participating in the SourceAmerica Design Challenge is that it is the easiest and most effective way to help many people with disabilities. For the competition, a product that will help people working with one specific nonprofit organization will be created, but eventually - through SourceAmerica - the product will be recognized by many organizations and a whole community of people with disabilities will be benefited. And that is my main goal: To help people, who are thought to be different from others, prove that with some help they can participate in and successfully complete the same jobs.

Design Challenge Participant

Design Challenge students collaborate with a person with a disability (subject matter expert) to form a team and identify a workplace challenge and together they help shape a solution. Every year, an overwhelming number of participants say their favorite part was seeing how their invention impacted the life of their subject matter expert. The collaboration exposes the students to the potential and skills of this talented workforce and the importance of assistive technology in advancing opportunities for professionals with disabilities in their community.

By focusing on the experience of the subject matter expert, solutions have created more inclusive environments and impacted professionals with disabilities nationwide. Some examples of the successes we've seen include:

  • Increased productivity and wages of workers employed through partnering nonprofits
  • Increased job access
  • Increased independence
  • Minimized waste in the workplace
  • Reduced anxiety
  • New contracts and employment opportunities

Students that participate in the challenge often see the impact their solutions have in workplaces for years to come!

Learning about the engineering process

It sounds like a cool opportunity to apply school and extracurricular skills in the real world and make a genuine impact on other people's lives. It's a chance to do something different that will also give me better experience for similar projects in the future.

Design Challenge Participant

Some Design Challenge participants might go on to become assistive technology engineers. The Design Challenge provides these future engineers with a platform to support employment for people with disabilities. It also lets them see their results in action, which is a mission moment that we hope inspires them in their professional careers for years to come.

No matter what they are studying, putting classroom lessons into real world experience is beneficial for any student. The Design Challenge is an opportunity for students to figure out how to solve a real-life problem through the engineering design process. Once a challenge has been identified, teams create prototypes that their subject matter expert test until it's ready to be implemented in the workplace.

Social media gives our team a glimpse into the production cycle of participant projects. Students often share pictures of their prototypes, meeting notes, and pictures and videos of their solution in testing stages. It's amazing to see them work together as a team to bring their design to life!

Being part of the community

I want to do something that has meaning and helps out the community. Our subject matter expert works in a hospital, and she has a big job that - if done improperly - could cause trouble. So, it’s pretty cool that my team and I can actually solve a real-world problem.

Design Challenge Participant

In addition to creating assistive technology and applying classroom skills to develop real-world solutions, the Design Challenge gives students an opportunity to become part of a community they may not have been familiar with before. The teams form relationships with other students, the school's leadership, and employees of organizations in their areas. In fact, many students partner with local SourceAmerica member nonprofit agencies to design a solution that will help enhance employment potential for professionals with disabilities in their own backyard.

In the spring, our team chooses five high school and three college teams to attend the final event as national winners in Washington D.C. Student-designed solutions are judged on the positive impact they have in the workplace. During the final event, team members – including their subject matter expert – showcase their design through presentations, live demonstrations, videos and exhibits. Our team and the students really enjoy seeing their work come to life!

Additionally, Design Challenge teams, their teachers, and members of the SourceAmerica team spend a day on Capitol Hill with their members of Congress advocating for science, technology, engineering and math curriculum, and employment opportunities for professionals with disabilities. Students have shared with us how much they value the opportunity to have their voices heard by their representatives.

For more information about the Design Challenge contact Charissa Garcia.