One of the goals of any school is to provide their students with the skills they need to move confidently through the world, and to instill in them the belief that if they apply themselves and work hard, they can achieve whatever goal they set their minds to.
That’s a tall order for any school, one made even more challenging when its students must confront visual and hearing impairment. Students at the Montana School for the Deaf and Blind in Great Falls are proving that being “differently abled” is no barrier to academic achievement even at the highest levels.
In December, international tech giant the Samsung Corporation announced that a team of students from the Deaf and Blind School (MSDB) are state finalists in their 2023 STEM competition to develop technologies with the potential to solve real world problems impacting the communities in which they live.
“A common theme this year is ‘connecting,’” explained Michelle Crossan-Matos, Chief Marketing, Citizenship & Communications Officer for Samsung America, “whether that’s connecting people to people, peer to peer, across generations, or even around the globe. In fact, one school’s entry is based on its connection with a school in Ukraine – proposing a solution for providing solar power to students in a war-ravaged community.”
The team of high school students attending classes at Montana School for the Deaf and Blind were in competition with more than 1,000 high school classes to secure one of 300 qualifying slots in the nationwide competition. In addition to the MSDB team, three other Montana high schools made the cut, including teams from Capital High School in Helena, Sentinel High School in Missoula and the Whitefish Middle School.
“It’s quite competitive,” said MSDB teacher Erin Barr, organizer of the school’s competition submission to Samsung. “Some classes continue to work on the same project for a number of years. Some have a different project each year.”
As state finalists the MSDB team, consisting of four (soon to be five) students and Ms. Barr, have already been awarded $2,500 in technology and classroom supplies for their school. Should they advance to Samsung’s National Finals, they will have the ultimate opportunity to win $100,000 in technology for their school.
This is not the first time students from the Montana School for the Deaf and Blind have been recognized by Samsung for their ingenuity and academic achievement. In 2020 a team from MSDB won the Montana state championship, landing $15,000 in supplies for MSDB. It was the first year Barr had entered a technology team in the competition.
“It was amazing that year to see just how far $15,000 goes,” she said. “Technology is ever changing and it’s hard for a school to keep up, especially in teaching with visually impaired students. There’s a lot of accessibility features that go into technology for our kiddos, and being able to keep up with that and to make sure they have access to it is really important.”
The 2020 award allowed the MSDB to obtain 10 portable Chromebook laptops, to begin developing a 3-D printing program for the school, and to fill the school’s lockers with basic classroom supplies to advance the education of all of the school’s students.
The precise emphasis of the MSDB team’s Samsung project this year is “kind of top secret.”
“It’s a safety product for inside the classroom that could be used in any type of school,” was all Barr would reveal of her students’ proposal. “It’s not just for schools with deaf and blind students. It’s not just for visually impaired people.”
Barr said the secrecy was meant to offset the chance that any other teams in Samsung’s competition might poach the MSDB’s ideas.
“The police department will probably end up being a big partner in this,” Barr alluded. “We have not gotten to that phase yet. Now we’re going to get into the research phase of it, where students figure out who they need to talk to and what materials we need to gather together.”
That type of social interaction, engaging with the public, learning how to locate the information that you need, learning how to communicate in a professional manner with leaders in the community are all part of the benefits of participating in the Samsung Solve for Tomorrow STEM competition.
“I think this is a great opportunity for them to go out and learn about interacting with the public,” Barr said, “and also for the public to understand that these students are just like anybody else. They may have a cane, they may have a cochlear implant, but just like anybody else they go shopping in our community, they get jobs in our community, they have a family.”
Interpersonal interaction, how to locate the information you need, how to engage with community leaders is all part of the learning experience. These are skills that all high school students should develop, but apply more specifically to those with alternative abilities.
“It’s important to form those skills as a student instead of going out into the real world not knowing how to find a person or the information you need to do something,” Barr said. “Even just making a phone call. Kids these days don’t know how to call to gather information or talk to someone in a position of authority. How do you form a question? How do you send out an appropriate email where you’re a little bit more formal in what you’re requesting?”
The team at MSDB has now entered the second phase of the Samsung STEM competition. Students are now being asked to submit lesson plans detailing how their proposed STEM project will address the identified community issue. Succeeding at that, the MSDB team would then be awarded a $20,000 prize enabling them to develop a prototype of the product they hope to submit.
“You have to have the physical object,” Barr explained of the contest’s process, “and if its reasonable you can send them the prototype or you can send a smaller mocked-up prototype so they can see what it looks like.”
The competition also demands students to produce a three-minute video of explaining their product, what it does, how it would benefit the community, and any potential environmental impacts. That portion of the competition is expected to be submitted before the end of January.
Win or not, simply the experience of competing brings clear advantages to the students who participate, especially in terms of personal confidence.
“So many of our students – I would say more than in your typical high school population, tend to be a little bit more unsure of those communications,” Barr said of the Samsung STEM competition’s benefits. “Trying to build that up is so important. Seeing the power of somebody building some of those skills is life affirming.”
“Sometimes they look at things through the lens of – I have a visual impairment,” she acknowledged. “Other times it’s just – I’m just a normal kid like everybody else – where they just want to be your average student and belong.”
“They all have different abilities just like everybody else,” Barr added, “and learning to work with everybody’s different quirks – being able to see each other’s strengths and weaknesses is really important too.”
To date, Samsung has awarded $24 million in technology and classroom materials to nearly 3,000 public schools in the United States,” a corporation news release states. “Solve for Tomorrow has been so impactful that it has expanded into a prominent Global citizenship program for Samsung Electronics now running in 33 countries worldwide and reaching over 2.1 million students around the world.”