15 Sep 2014
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Point Boro Students Design Assisted-Learning Software for Special-Needs Peers

Point Boro Students Design Assisted-Learning Software for Special-Needs Peers

Written by Jacquelyn Goss, Point Boro schools

Technology acts as the great equalizer in the classroom, offering a common approach toward differentiating instruction to meet the needs of all students, regardless of each student’s needs and abilities.

Classroom technology use is especially important for students with disabilities, who face barriers to learning on a daily basis. For students with disabilities, technology can be the lifeline that enhances their learning experiences and creates increased opportunities for social interactions as well as for future employment.

In recent years, great strides have been made toward the development of assistive technologies for students with disabilities. The past few years have seen an explosion of adaptive technologies for students with special needs from augmentative and alternative communication devices to screen readers and touch-screen devices and an almost limitless suite of apps and programs for use with mobile devices. The advent of these technologies has given students the ability to communicate and learn in ways that were previously unimagined.

And while all of these assistive technologies are beneficial, they’re typically made for a broader range of applications. And although they can be further adapted, based on students’ needs, rarely do students have the opportunity to work with technologies that are tailor-made for their specific requirements. It’s even less common for students with disabilities, or any student for that matter, to have a custom suite of apps, adapted from their own teacher’s wish list, and designed with the goal of improving their lives. But that is exactly what the students enrolled in Point Pleasant Borough High School’s Life Skills Program have thanks to the advent of Panther Assisted Learning Software, or PALS, a set of assistive learning applications that are being developed by High School Technology teacher Nick Gattuso’s first-year Computer Programming class.

In keeping with the District’s philosophy of promoting community-based educational opportunities for students with disabilities, the PALS applications are the result of an inspired pairing between the students from the Life Skills program and Mr. Gattuso’s students, that had the groups working collaboratively so that the computer programming students could design a set of applications based solely on the students in the Life Skills program’s needs.

“The goal of the Life Skills Program is to prepare students with multiple disabilities to become independent members of the community,” said Phyllis Thomson, one of the Program’s teachers. “Instruction focuses on practical academic and vocational skills that support independent living, like meal preparation, and food shopping as well as retail skills like money management and inventory supervision, which students learn through their work at our Just Around the Corner School Store.”

“The apps that have been designed for the PALS program, so far, have enhanced instruction while achieving the overarching goal of improving social interaction between our students with disabilities and their non-disabled peers,” added fellow Life Skills teacher Anne Gearing.

Now in the second year of development, Panther Assisted Learning Software utilizes graphics-based interfaces to create apps that support the Life Skills students’ learning objectives, among them are a series of custom-designed apps designed to simplify liquid measurement and others that help students with money-changing.

The concept for the software was borne of mutual need – that of the students in the Life Skills program, who required a set of assistive technologies that addressed their needs, and that accounted for their widely varying disabilities, and that of Mr. Gattuso, whose approach to programming – both as a teacher and in practice – has been heavily influenced by a moral imperative to make a positive difference in the lives of others.

“I try to teach my students how to use their programming, engineering and problem-solving skills to affect positive change,” said Mr. Gattuso. “Initially, I think some students are attracted to programming because they want to learn to hack or to do this or that online. But that’s not what I’m about and that’s not what my classes are about.”

Mr. Gattuso said that his approach to teaching computer programming stems from his personal experiences in private industry, when he worked as a programmer for Bell Communications. During his time at Bell, Mr. Gattuso was credited with designing a number of successful programs and applications, many of which are still in use today. It wasn’t until he developed a successful visual communications application that enabled users to handle telecommunications through their computers, eliminating the need to physically pick up a phone, that he began to comprehend the implications of his work. After installing the program on a disabled colleague’s computer, Gattuso witnessed the colleague, whose disability restricted the use of his hands, answer his phone unassisted, for the first time in his life, thereby prompting Gattuso to change his perspective on programming.

“The experience really brought the point home to me of who I could potentially be designing these applications for,” he said.

It was this experience that influenced Mr. Gattuso’s commitment to cultivating that same altruistic perspective of programming in his students. He knew that when he introduced his students to graphical user interfaces, it was with the idea that the students would use their knowledge for a good cause.

“When I first approached Phyllis Thomson and Anne Gearing [the Life Skills program’s teachers] last year, they were very enthusiastic,” he said, joking that Mrs. Thomson returned a book-length wish list of assistive applications, that she has been adding to ever since. “And after the success of the first suite of apps, we were really looking forward to taking that next step and continuing our work.”

“Although this was a new group of students, they responded with characteristic enthusiasm, that really could not be tamed once they began working directly with the Life Skills students,” he said.

Working in teams of three-four students, and using complex programming software, that Mr. Gattuso compared to advanced college-level material, the students set about developing the next set of applications from Mrs. Thomson’s wish list - an application to help her students with changing money.

The teams were structured in a manner consistent with professional project management teams, with a resource manager, technical manager and lead programmer working together to develop the design, appearance and functions of the application.

“When my kids learned what they would be working on, that they weren’t just building meaningless applications or games, but would be building applications that were going to change their fellow students’ lives, they’ve been working non-stop, coming in after school and during their lunches to get them finished,” Mr. Gattuso said.

“I signed up for this class to satisfy a requirement but have come to love it,” said Junior Emily Henn, whose team designed an app for a student who suffers from tunnel vision, creating a colorful image-based program after it was determined that the student responded best to colors. “I never realized that I would have the opportunity to help people.”

Junior Derick Fischer also liked having the opportunity to help, crediting Mr. Gattuso’s encouragement for his motivation, saying, “Mr. Gattuso has really inspired me to look at programming in a new perspective. It’s been a great experience.”

In fact, Mr. Gattuso’s students enjoyed their experiences working with the students in the Life Skills Program, that many of them volunteered to serve as buddies at the Second Annual Spring Prom for students with special needs.

“The programming students have been so motivated and excited to work with our students,” said Ms. Gearing. “They’ve really shown that they understand how important this project is, and they’ve embraced the opportunity to help their peers.  This has been an unforgettable experience that I think will really resonate with all of these students for the rest of their lives. It’s life-changing.”

“Plus, the applications they’ve created are so user-friendly for both the students and the teachers,” added Ms. Gearing, explaining that the programs are engaging and effectively prompt learning while providing instant gratification for the students and feedback for the teachers, indicating what areas students might need additional help with.

Mrs. Thomson expressed her gratitude to Mr. Gattuso and his students, saying, “It’s so challenging to find applications that are appropriate for my students’ needs,” she said. “This software will be tremendously beneficial for my students and I’m so grateful. But what I’m most grateful for is for this project’s collaborative approach – that is what the Life Skills program is all about, our students working with their peers and the community, creating relationships and forging meaningful bonds to learn skills that will serve them for the rest of their lives. It’s just an awesome experience.”

Mrs. Thomson said that technology-based lessons are essential for students with special needs, because technological skills can make all the difference with regard to future employability. 

Supervisor of Pupil Personnel Services Rita Miller, said, “The further development of the PALS applications for the Life Skills students aligns perfectly with the program’s goal of teaching vocational sufficiency while promoting community integration among students with multiple disabilities. The PALS apps are providing our students with multiple disabilities with new ways to achieve their potential, and ultimately helping them to become independent members of the community.”

“The development of these apps has also facilitated increased interaction between our students with multiple disabilities and their non-disabled peers,” she said. “This interaction is central to the inclusive school climate that we have been working to foster in the Point Pleasant Borough School District.” 

“This project exemplifies collaborative learning at its best,” said Superintendent of Schools Vincent S. Smith. “Working together on projects such as this not only helps our students learn better, making them individually better students, but it also makes our school better, and promotes a culture of acceptance throughout the district.”


Visit www.pointpleasant.k12.nj.usfor more about Point Pleasant Borough Schools.

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