Turn Taker

I have a family friend who is on the autism spectrum, so I find this project really close to my heart. Getting to work on something tangible in the Durham Public Schools that can have actual impact is so rewarding.

Margaret G., Class of 2022


In a local high school in Durham, there are certain classrooms for those with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). This classroom is almost no different than any other: teachers often engage verbally with their students, asking them for a spoken response to a proposed question. When a teacher proposes a question, some students may need more time to process the information and come up with a response than others. Additionally, students may call out answers that disrupt the classroom environment and interfere with other learning processes. Julie Morin, a Durham Public Schools special education teacher, is looking for a solution that allows educators to “lock-out” a buzzer for a specific, adjusted, individual amount of time. 


The first time the team got together, they decided it was extremely important to establish a team culture. They knew if they wanted to get meaningful work done, it was of utmost importance to understand each member’s thought process and evaluate what they individually brought to the table. “It was definitely slow progress at first, figuring out where our shared skills and expertise lay. But through team-building exercises in the Engineering 101 Classroom, we started forming a bond that was so strong -- it served as the foundation of our future solution.”, Andres articulated.

Once they had the strength within their team dynamics, they decided it was important to establish the design criteria for which they would be engineering a solution. After careful deliberation, they decided they wanted to make a device that would: (1) reduce the number of classroom disruptions by more than 20%, (2) have a set up time of no more than 30 seconds, (3) last more than four years and withstand spills, and (4) be easy to use and engage students. 

These solution standards in mind, the team went about creating their first prototype. The rather simple cardboard box-design featured toothpicks which were moved up and down to indicate buzzer responses. As the team grew their solution, they started integrating more electronics with this box. From LEDs to PCBs, their once low-fidelity idea starting looking more advanced. This expansion presented a new series of challenges with which the team had to grapple. 

“There were more issues in the electrical design of our idea than we had ever imagined. We had no experience with engineering before, and to be thrown into the world of Arduinos and soldering was definitely intimidating. We had to make quick design decisions, and accurately execute them.”, emphasized Lauren. 

Luckily, there were mentors to help us along the way. Under the guidance of their lab TA, technical mentor, and in-house lab assistant the team turned their fragile cardboard box into a complex electrical solution. Featuring CAT5 cables allowing student-to-teacher communications and a double LED indicator light, the students handed over their final solution to the Durham School of the Arts.

“I really hope our project can have a meaningful impact. We worked hard on it, and want it to be used for a great cause”, added Leaf.