Science & Technology



Animals with disabilities get a little help from engineering design students

Maura Fox, The San Diego Union-Tribune on

Published in Science & Technology News

SAN DIEGO — A braille-inscribed video game controller for a blind student. A splint for a cat or dog with an injured leg. An acorn that can be filled with seeds for a bird to reach with a broken beak.

These are just some of the items that 18 students at Marston Middle School in Clairemont designed over the course of three weeks this spring. It was part of an inaugural program through the county Office of Education’s department of Educational Technology, which aims to bring innovative learning experiences to schools across San Diego.

The students were tasked with designing accessibility items for animals with disabilities at the Living Coast Discovery Center and San Diego Humane Society, as well as for a local student named Diego, who is blind.

Once they finalized their designs, the items were brought to life using a 3-D printer.

“We had real students and real animals that needed solutions,” said Carrie Lane, the project specialist in the Educational Technology department who organized the program.

By the end of the course, the students and their classmates created a total of 20 items. For Diego, they designed gaming controller cases with braille and a football with bells in it that sounds when it’s thrown. He also received a tactile map of his high school before he starts there in the fall.

And for the animals, they made hiding boxes for owls or opossums recovering from injuries, a ladder on which a bird with a broken wing can perch, puzzle feeders and a splint to fit fragile and small animals, like kittens and puppies.

Other students, such as eighth-graders Addie Bowe and Skye Carmody, made habitats and enrichment tools for the animals’ mental stimulation.

All the items were made with proper materials, such as a flex filament for the football and food-safe filament for the animals’ tools.

Bowe and Carmody spent hours thinking of the best way to make a habitat for a lizard and an interactive snake enrichment tool. The project required them to research the animals’ specific needs and lifestyles and calculate the correct measurements of the items so the critters could actually use them.

The two students happen to both love reptiles — “I feel like they’re the closest thing to dinosaurs,” Carmody explained.

“Getting to see the Temple of Glycon fully put together was … pretty cool,” said Bowe, referring to the dome-like enrichment structure the two students, along with their friend, Leah, designed and named after the Roman god of serpents. “Like, we actually made that.”

The program took place during the middle school’s Exploration Advisory course, a 35-minute morning class where students can learn about an array of subjects such as photography, coding and creative writing.


Lane first introduced accessibility design to students in January at the Linda Vista Innovation Center, which holds four-hour design-thinking labs for students, many of whom come from marginalized backgrounds, to brainstorm and solve real-world problems in fields like e-sports and robotics.

In April, she connected with Marston Middle School to bring the pilot three-week program. But instead of students simply designing accessibility items, Lane partnered with local organizations that could actually use the tools, including the San Diego Humane Society, Living Coast Discovery Center and the South County SELPA, which coordinates special education programs for students and connected her with Diego.

The animal organizations sent over a list of needs for which the students could create designs, and Diego shared his list, as well.

The majority of the items were completed by Marston students, though Lane said a few were done by students from other middle schools including Rancho Minerva, Bethune, Joan Macqueen and Parkway.

The Humane Society says that several animals at its shelters have benefited from the items since they were dropped off this month, from kittens and puppies waiting for adoption to wild animals recovering from injuries at Project Wildlife.

Along with keeping the animals stimulated, some of the tools can help animals handle stress while in the shelter.

Jonathan Chapman, a veterinarian at the Humane Society, is already thinking about other items the students could make next, including food scoops and surgery equipment.

Aiyana Reissman, the animal care manager at the Living Coast Discovery Center, said that the center has previously used 3-D-designed items for their animal habitats since it allows them to tailor items to the animals’ specific needs.

“A lot of people will joke that animal care is put together by zip ties and duct tape,” Reissman said. “In many cases, we have to be really innovative about the ways that we care for our animals.”

Lane ultimately hopes to bring the design program to other schools across the county, especially since she’s seen how programs like this help students start to think about potential career paths.

For Bowe and Carmody, the project was right up their alley. The two friends are excited to join the robotics team at Clairemont High School, where they’re heading in the fall.

“I just like to learn things,” Bowe said, adding that engineering is a field she might want to pursue one day. “I like anything where I can create something and see what I made.”

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