When hundreds of youth convene at the University of Arizona on April 27, they will be vying for the rare opportunity to represent Arizona in a new, national competition in prosthetic arm design.
As part of the Mathematics, Engineering and Science Achievement, or MESA, program, the middle and high school students will participate in a range of competitions, largely to help them to cultivate deep, critical thinking and a client-centered perspective.
"In short, we aim to nurture conscientious STEM professionals because that's what the world needs," said Reed Dickson, a coordinator at the UA's Office of Early Academic Outreach.
On MESA Day, more than 650 students from 38 schools across Arizona will present designs of prosthetic arms, miniature roller coasters, self-cooling hats, rainwater harvesting models, water transportation systems and air-drop rockets. They also will participate in a new solar car challenge sponsored by Quantum Energy and Sustainable Solar Technology.
The event will close with an awards ceremony in the South Ballroom of the Student Union Memorial Center from 2:30-3:30 p.m.
The introduction of the prosthetic arm competition is a first for MESA students across the nation, and it is designed to not only inform students about the science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM fields, but also to engage them in critical consciousness development.
The students were given a scenario: A college-bound student and a tennis player asked MESA students to design a new kind of prosthetic arm that she could then use. The teams are asked to consider the hypothetical character's life and experiences, and then begin the process of designing a prosthetic arm that can meet those needs.
"For example, we ask students to learn about their clients starting with anyone they know, and then anyone local, including local prosthetists and people who use prostheses. The idea here is that students design not for clients, but with clients," Dickson said.
"While focusing on the challenge at hand, MESA also aims to help students think beyond the immediate client – toward the long-term social and environmental impacts of their design," Dickson said.
He offered, as an example, MESA's disaster response design competition, in which students must design a container to transport water in the event of an earthquake in Nogales.
"While students are asked to consider the nuances of public need," Dickson said, "they are also scored on their ability to honestly present the pros and cons of their design – their conscientiousness, in other words."
The aim is to teach students to be conscious and authentic in their practice and, in some cases, around issues facing individuals with disabilities.
"When you see disability represented in curricula or the media, it often is one-dimensional and very othering," said Amanda Kraus, assistant director for disability resources at the UA's Disability Resource Center.
"If the design is limiting, or if you are excluded by design, then you will be made disabled, you will be othered and you will be separated," Kraus said.
Kraus, who served as a competition consultant through the invitation of Dickson, said the competition offers an important opportunity for young students to engage in those critical and necessary conversations about disability and access.
She also hopes the educators will begin to rethink concepts about disability and work to reframe thinking around disability.
"With this example of the prosthetic arm, there is a lot of education and training that can get you to a place where you could be engineering and designing in this way," Kraus said, adding that the competition is designed to underscore the need for improved awareness and importance of disability studies and universal design.
"We all have the opportunities to design, whether we are working on an event or a syllabus," she said. "We didn't want students to lose that opportunity to think differently and to try new things while incorporating more human dimensions in what they are doing. Now, they have this great opportunity to really think about what disability means."
UA alumnus David Hill has long engaged his students in MESA competitions, finding that the creative problem-solving aspects are encouraging and necessary for students.
"They must do research, design and testing to come up with their own original solution to the problems. This is not a memorize-and-recall-facts process," said Hill, a two-time UA graduate who has been involved with the Peoria MESA program for 20 years. "Students must be creative, think outside the box and work cooperatively as a team."
Hill, a MESA adviser, also said the program complements what students are learning in their schools, which helps to reinforce skills, enabling the students to also apply what they learn, whether it be in mathematics, communication, vocabulary or scientific methods.
"The activities in MESA have students working just like scientists and engineers solving original problems," Hill said. "I like to think that students' other classes teach them basic skills and concepts. MESA has the students put it all together. It has given them a reason to learn the skills and concepts as they must draw upon all of them to meet the challenges they are given."