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UW Courts Students With Disabilities To Engineering Field With New MakerSpaces

What if the answer to one of humanities biggest problems was in the mind of someone who could not access the tools to solve it?

The University of Washington's Access Engineering program is working towards a solution to that issue. They want more students with disabilities to study engineering, and that means getting their take on how to make makerspaces more accessible.

The UW's CoMotion MakerSpace provides space, equipment and tools for people to prototype designs and work on projects.

It's large, bright and open, with all kinds of tools: drills, wrenches, a sewing machine, high tech 3-D printers and laser cutters.

Kayla Wheeler, who will be a sophomore at the UW this fall, was part of a group of students with disabilities that recently toured CoMotion. Wheeler was born with only one arm.

Her wheelchair is a colorful moving home that holds her backpack and other belongings, including a bucket full of crayons, and a little bumper sticker that reads: "Ten fingers are overrated."

"[In] this makerspace I really like that almost everything is on wheels, because as a person in a wheelchair it's a lot easier to get something out of your way," Wheeler said.

But she said she would like to see some of the table areas and tools that are high up lowered.

"My chair goes up so I can access some of the areas, but people in standard manual chairs or even power chairs that don't have a seat elevator could have some issues reaching some of the higher up items," she said.

But what's good for one student, could be difficult for another. A student who's blind, for instance, will make a mental map of the room, so moving a tool wall on wheels to a different part of the room could throw them off.

This is the kind of feedback that UW Engineering researcher Kat Steele is looking for. She said more and more university campuses across the country are creating these makerspaces.

"These are the places where students can come and create and design all day, everyday, anytime they want to whenever the creativity strikes," Steele said.

She said their ultimate goal is more diversity in engineering. They want to encourage more students with disabilities to pursue careers in the field. And she said they can do that with what's called universal design.

"This idea of how do we design products and spaces that are the most accessible to everyone, into the engineering curriculum so that hopefully all of our future engineers -- whether they're designing the next phone or the next bridge -- will think about what are the small changes we can make in our designs that will make this accessible to the most people," she said.

Meantime, Steele said, they'll make what they've learned accessible to other places building makerspaces to foster more collaboration and problem solving.

Something Kayla Wheeler is excited to tackle.

"The cool thing about engineering spaces is a lot of people use engineering spaces to help solve other problems for people with disabilities, and I think it would be cool if people with disabilities were more involved with solving their own problems," she said.

The university plans to open its second makerspace this fall, and more spaces are planned that include universal design ideas.

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