Empathy can be a powerful motivator and students from Michigan’s Kent Career Tech Center are proof of that. Inspired by a teacher looking for ways to assist a student with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), the students applied empathy and art to assist by creating 2D comic strips to model desired behavior skills. But when even more students in the 3D Animation and Game Design program at the school joined the effort that the project evolved. Through teamwork, the students created a Behavior Skills Training app that utilizes virtual reality (VR) technology to help people with autism develop classroom social skills.

Their work and video documenting the project got them selected as a top 10 national finalist team in the Samsung Solve for Tomorrow contest and won them $50,000 in technology for their school.

The contest, administered each year by Samsung, challenges students in 6th through 12thgrade to take on a challenge in their community using science, technology, engineering, arts and math (STEAM) skills. The Kent Career Tech Center team now has the chance to compete for an additional $100,000 worth of Samsung technology at the contest’s final pitch event in New York City, April 9th – 11th.

“This is a great opportunity to create a tool that will help people with ASD share their gifts with the world,” said Marc Petz, the teacher who guided the students in their quest.

Students with autism are often subject to bullying and held back by misunderstandings. The app shares comic strips to communicate emotional cues, and 3D animations and virtual reality experiences were programmed to help simulate real life situations. This creative approach allows for immersive ways for those with autism to learn[1] about and respond to different behaviors.

The project was especially prescient given that April is Autism Awareness Month. All of the students involved with making the app have different reasons for wanting to apply their talents to this undertaking.

“Everyone should have a fair chance at education, and I don’t think something like autism should get in the way,” said Kayla K., a student member of the school’s Samsung Solve for Tomorrow team who also has friends with autism.

Others involved said their motivation for building the app came from a personal connection to the disorder.

“This project is meaningful to me on a personal level because my sister has Autism. It is a great opportunity because we can bridge misunderstandings and get to a place where there is less bullying of people with autism, and more connection,” said student Ariana P.

The hands-on approach and design thinking required by STEAM, as well as the dedication required to code and design VR experiences, has a lasting effect on all students participating in the Samsung Solve for Tomorrow challenge.

“I love what I’m doing, and I’m learning what I love to do, all while we make this huge impact on our community.” said student Donovan F.

Petz and his students plan to use their technology winnings to begin to pilot their project’s prototype in their school since they would need more tablets and the Samsung Gear VR headset to utilize the app in more classrooms.

To find out more about 2018 Samsung Solve for Tomorrow national finalist teams, please visit smsng.news/SFT2018Top10.