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Waterloo student's CAD project inspires others

What started as a routine assignment turned into a life-changing experience for Waterloo High School junior Abigail Baxter.

Abigail was a sophomore in Casey Cowell’s Computer-Aided Design class when Cowell presented the make:able challenge to his students. The task called for students to use AutoDesk software in conjunction with 3D printing to “design and make a product or prototype that improves the day-to-day life of someone who struggles with mobility in their hands.”

Inspired by the memories of elementary school teachers telling her that she was holding her pencil incorrectly whenever she would pick it up to start writing a sentence or solve a math problem, Abigail set out to create something that would benefit students who grew up with the same challenges she faces.

“I wanted to design something that was universal and could be used by multiple people in multiple ways,” she says.

CLICK HERE to view a Spectrum News feature on Abigail

Abigail’s idea was to create a pencil grip that could support a natural, comfortable hand position for students who also struggled to hold their writing utensils properly.

“I didn’t know where to start at all,” Abigail says. “I eventually decided to go with the Gripper because it was something that I knew the most about. It was something I’d experienced, something I had been through and something that I could build off of.”

Abigail’s personal connection to the project made it apparent to Cowell and Toby Coleman, Waterloo’s Director of Personalized Learning and Innovative Programming, that her design had potential.

“Abby looked like she wanted to go further,” Cowell says. “She just needed a push.”

“We knew what she was capable of doing, she just needed to understand that herself,” Coleman says. “Once she grabbed that concept, she just flew with it.”

Did she ever.

Cowell and Coleman encouraged Abigail to enter her design in the international make:able challenge that included submissions from more than 17,000 students from more than 70 countries.  Abigail eventually decided to enter and her design placed in the top four in two categories: Best Inspirational Story (14-18) and Best Showcase of Iterative Design (14-18).

Abigail, Cowell and Coleman presented their story at the New York State Computer and Technology in Education Conference on Saturday, Nov. 20 in Rochester.

Working together

Abigail Baxter

Entering the competition was not a given for Abigail.

She knew it would require extra effort, including building a web page to share her story, and with the coronavirus pandemic limiting her in-person class time, she wasn’t sure that she could handle it all.

“There were days that I didn’t really like this,” Abigail recalls.

Enter Cowell and Coleman, who provided the proper guidance at the right time.

“Abigail just had a determination to succeed,” Cowell says. “She wasn’t happy with being mediocre or having something just be OK, so we just pushed her. She just took that challenge on and kept striving for success.”

Abigail’s journey included tweaking the size and shape of the prototypes to find the best fit for children’s hands. She also changed filaments to create a solid plastic design as well as a flexible plastic design. Finally, she had to make sure that the hole in her pear-shaped device was just the right size so that pencils would fit.

“There were many iterations,” Abigail says. “There were little things in the design process that make the design process really shine.”

She also met with Heidi Young, an occupational therapist at both Skoi-Yase Primary and LaFayette Intermediate schools, for input and feedback.

“If you don’t have good control over your pencil, the quality of your work and the accuracy of your work is going to decrease,” says Young, while pointing out that younger students gravitated toward the device with the softer material. “The size of the pencil grip was perfect because it provided them with a bigger surface area to hold on to those pencils and it allowed for a stronger grip on the pencils and improved the accuracy of their work.”

With the backing of the district, teachers submitted orders for the Gripper and about 300 were made. Abigail even conducted a Zoom presentation with second and fourth graders to explain the Gripper and the entire development process.

“Doing the interviews with them over Zoom was incredible,” says Abby, who was not comfortable with public speaking prior to embarking on the project. “They had so many questions and that is enough for me. If I can inspire kids to want to do what I am doing right now, I will do that any day.”

Important lessons learned

Abigail Baxter

Both Cowell and Coleman are advocates of teaching their students how to solve problems as they prepare them for industry standard careers and life beyond high school. Both are advocates of trial and error.

“It’s not like math class,” Cowell says. “There’s no right way or wrong way to do something. One of the biggest things, I feel, is that it’s OK to fail, especially with rapid prototyping. You are going to learn 10 times more from your failures than you will from your successes. Eventually, you will get to a success, but you need to fail to see what is going wrong. … You are going to learn a lot more if you figure it out yourself.”

For Abigail, who transferred to Waterloo in ninth grade, the Technology wing has become her self-described “natural habitat” for learning.

“This is my favorite part of the school,” she says. “I feel most comfortable in this room. This is not only a creative outlet for me, but a place where I can learn how to do things that are going to help me in my future. That to me is very important because I can enjoy it as the same time as I am learning everything. I feel like that is important for people because if you are not enjoying what you are learning, you are not paying attention.”

Cowell believes that Waterloo’s technology department has access to some of the best facilities in the state, including the new 3-D printers that were used on Abigail’s project. Supporting “each student on a personalized journey to realize their goals” is part of the Mission Statement in the district’s new strategic plan.

“This project is a shining example of our core value of being student-centered,” Waterloo Superintendent of Schools Terri Bavis says. “Our mission is to put kids first every day while helping to develop a caring community of learners and leaders.”

For Abigail, this project has taught her about so much more than CAD. She has received compliments from Mrs. Bavis as well as students, teachers and others in the community that she didn’t know.

 “Helping people is such a big part of my personality, it’s taken a long time to realize that but it is such a good feeling to help people,” Abigail says. “It was a new feeling. … I had never experienced anything like that. I had never seen something that I had created in the hands of children and it could impact their future. That was a huge, huge impact on me.”

Which is the greatest lesson of all.

“It’s awesome to compete against the global community and do really well,” Coleman says. “But I think watching her grow as an individual and grow confidently and to become more outspoken about design and problem-solving to younger students, that was 100 times better than being a finalist in an international competition."

- Steve Bradley, WF-L BOCES Public Information Coordinator