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Engineering Class Engages Students with Blind Community

Engineering Class Engages Students with Blind Community

A core requirement for Shiley-Marcos School of Engineering majors, Engineering 103 focuses on user-centered design, a valuable skillset for all budding engineers.

When second-year students Taylor Brown, Reyna Kirschel and Dustin Greenwood registered for the course this spring, they were doubly happy it would be taught by Associate Professor of Industrial and Systems Engineering Odesma Dalrymple, PhD.

Why? The course not only complements other 100-level core classes, but the instructor provides students a chance to enhance their work, knowledge and experience through community engagement.

In partnership with USD's Mulvaney Center for Community, Awareness and Social Action, Dalrymple's students interact with blind and low-vision people from the San Diego Blind Community Center (BCC) and develop project ideas to serve this community's needs.

"I was excited to take the class with Dr. D because I'm interested to incorporate user-centered design,” says Brown, an industrial and systems engineering major. “The chance to work with the blind community adds uniqueness."

"This takes (Engineering 103) to a whole new level for me," says Kirschel, an electrical engineering major. "I love the idea of getting to interact with people from the community for a project."

Greenwood, also an electrical engineering major, says he’s excited to get to work on user-centered design with actual people — not creating a modeled person — and to incorporate an empathy part, too.

Interaction is truly key. In past semesters, Dalrymple has taken students to the BCC to spend time and listen to the participants there. Alternately, Dalrymple has brought people from the center to USD's campus, creating a bond.

"It's a great opportunity for social justice and it makes an impact on the students," says Dalrymple, who connected with the center through the Mulvaney Center’s Director of Community-Engaged Learning, John Loggins. This is the class’ fifth semester since Spring 2018. "It fulfills the diversity and inclusion requirement, and by working with a population that's been marginalized, students can identify the differences and shape it through an engineering lens."

Loggins initiated USD's connection when he attended a pancake breakfast fundraiser with his mother in 2017. There he met Christie Greene, who is the center's full-time volunteer resource development and marketing director.

First offered as a USD student volunteer opportunity through the Mulvaney Center in 2017, Loggins encouraged Dalrymple to create the ENGR 103 class connection.

"USD students learn how blind/low-vision people do things that sighted people take for granted, like pouring a cup of coffee, reading a book, working on crafts, playing games, cooking and walking from one place to another," Greene says. "The students gain empathy and learn that we all do the same things, just a little differently."

Through this interaction, "BCC participants become the teachers and enjoy that the project is a learning experience for both groups," Greene continues. "They’re viewed as equals in the class ; their thoughts, experiences and ideas are mutually explored."

The bond strengthens, even as new students come in each semester.

"This is an excellent thing Odesma's created," says Rochelle Harris, a low-vision blind member on the center's board of directors and a liaison for Dalrymple. "The students are learning how to connect with us and be a part of it all. A lot of the older people at the center think of the students as their grandkids. They have gotten close to them and it makes a huge difference."

Of course, this particular spring is different, due to the mid-semester upheaval caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. All university classes are finishing the semester remotely, thus canceling in-person and on-campus gatherings due to social distancing. California's stay-at-home edict has forced the BCC to close until at least May 1, so Zoom meetings are necessary for the class to continue.

Dalrymple makes each Tuesday's class an online interaction day with the center's participants. Three weeks in, students and center members chat and break into small groups to work on end-of-the-semester projects.

Dalrymple and Greene agree that having the class online is still effective. In her March 31 online class, Dalrymple did icebreaker introductions, giving each participant the direction to state their feelings at that moment in just three words.

"Stay healthy, friends," was the first response. "Ready to socialize," said another. It was followed by positive advice: "Appreciate everything good."

The conversation soon shifted to COVID-19, leading one BCC participant to speak up about the challenges of being a blind grocery shopper adhering to social distancing, and the struggle with what feel like an act of exclusion. "The stores are putting markings on the floor now for social distancing. They've put the tape down, but how is a blind person supposed to see it?"

Perhaps that's a project idea in the making for students. If so, it could join a host of other creative projects. Past ideas include creating a Bingo game card with toggle switches, or a prototype that makes bead and safety pin assembly in a crafts class easier.

Kendric Clagett, a junior mechanical engineering major who was in Dalrymple's Fall 2019 class, was in a group that created a 3-D scale model of the center. The goal is to allow BCC members to have a better understanding of the building’s layout.

"I really liked working with them. It was a good introduction to their lifestyle, one that most people don't think twice about," says Clagett, who’s also in the San Diego NROTC program. "The community members are not nearly as privileged. It’s amazing how many more things are designed for those who can see. The class really opened my mind on how to consider design from all aspects."

Greene believes the partnership between USD, BCC and the people who utilize it, can grow.

"As a result of Odesma's class, both BCC volunteers and participants are learning about how to use Zoom. We're getting ready to roll out our Spanish and French classes and have a COVID-19 question-and-answer session with a doctor," Greene says. "This might be the beginning of opportunities for the BCC to have online communication and entertainment, not just during the pandemic, but maybe for the future." — Ryan T. Blystone

Video, images by Allyson Meyer '16

Shiley-Marcos School of Engineering Professor Odesma Dalrymple, far right, works with students and Blind Community Center members in Fall 2019 class. Engineering 103 is happening online this semester.Shiley-Marcos School of Engineering Professor Odesma Dalrymple, far right, works with students and Blind Community Center members in Fall 2019 class. Engineering 103 is happening online this semester.

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