Federal Contracts Director Tobi Mathouser speaks with the team of Omaha North engineering students.

Goodwill and Omaha North High School are teaming up for the first time to take on the AbilityOne Design Challenge. In this national competition, students work together to create devices that will improve the lives of people with disabilities.

Federal Contracts Director Tobi Mathouser met with a team of seven Omaha North engineering students, Engineering Technology faculty member Dr. Lee Kallstrom and Special Education Coordinator Doug Pospishil earlier in October to talk about the project and working with people with disabilities.

“You guys are part of a great, really pioneering group,” Mathouser told the class. “Goodwill has never done anything like this.”

The AbilityOne Design Challenge is sponsored by NISH, the national nonprofit organization that partners with Goodwill to employ people with significant disabilities. The contest is in its 11th year, but this is the first time Goodwill Omaha has been a part of it.

One of Mathouser’s goals is to expose as many students as possible to what it’s like working with people with disabilities – a goal that Kallstrom and Pospishil share.

Kallstrom said that a lot of the group’s research so far has been very “nuts and bolts” – things like costs, materials and efficiency. But he wants the students to have as much depth to their understanding as possible.

“We can build a robot, but if we don’t know how it will affect people, then we haven’t done our job,” he said. “It may be a great robot and an impressive construction, but does it solve the problem?”

Mathouser and the faculty hope to give the students some face-to-face time with Goodwill AbilityOne employees, so that they can refine the project and make it more user-friendly. She explained to the group that some of the employees’ disabilities – including cognitive disabilities – can be quite severe, meaning that the device needs to be simple and instructions need to be easy to follow.

“We have some employees who need to carry task lists with them each day, even though they’ve been doing the same thing for 5-10 years,” she said.

The class does have some experience designing for people with disabilities. Kallstrom talked about how, in the past, the group has done wheelchair designs for buildings, in addition to designing a halfway home for people with spinal injuries and other disabilities to help them adapt to their new situations.

While all of the Omaha North students involved are interested in engineering, they have broadly different goals. One student wants to get into robotics. Another wants to become an airline pilot. One student plans on pursuing weapons engineering, while another wants to continue studies for biomedical engineering.

Kallstrom said the group is very energized about the project. Designs have already been drawn and materials have been ordered.

“We are so excited to be working with you guys,” he said. “We have a lot of support from the school and the district – they respect what the kids are doing.”

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