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Monroe High School student Gavin Higgins was in a car wreck in early 2016 that gave him a traumatic brain injury.

Ann Williams, Higgins’ mother, said following that accident a lot of the connections her son used for motor skills were broken, but he’s still the same person on the inside.

So a workshop put on by the Adaptive Technology Engineering Network student group at Oregon State University on Arduino computer programming Saturday was a perfect fit for Higgins, who had been planning to study engineering and animal science in college before his accident. The workshop, the first in a series of four, invited children with disabilities to explore hands-on science and technology learning and supported them with adaptive technology and undergraduate student helpers.

Higgins, who was able to work on a computer that uses eye movement for the programming lesson, is still capable of communicating through nodding and shaking his head. His interview with the Gazette-Times went as follows:

Are you having fun learning computer programming?

A nod for yes.

Are you learning much about computer programming?

Another nod.

Would you like to do more activities like this?

A big nod yes.

Williams said because her son uses a wheelchair, many people avoid talking to him or only see his wheelchair and not him as a person, so she liked that students were making an effort to work with her son.

“They are really trying to meet him where he’s at and that’s good,” she said.

Matt Harrison, a third-year doctoral student in mechanical engineering who organized the event and a series of similar workshops set for the next three Saturdays, said the workshops were funded with a $7,500 grant from the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers.

He said the events are unique in their focus on adapting science, technology, engineering and math programs for kids with disabilities.

However, Harrison said each of the 16 undergraduate students who were working with the program will be documenting how they were able to overcome challenges with the students they were helping. They will then log this in the Disabilities, Opportunities, Internetworking, and Technology (DO-IT) database, so other people can see what worked for the program, and hopefully replicate, adapt and expand it.

Harrison said he was inspired to create the program by Joshua Gess, his advisor, who uses a wheelchair.

Gess, who is also involved in the project, said studies have shown more diverse groups are better at solving problems, so the engineering field needs more people with disabilities because they can think differently.

Gess said just for him to get from one side of a classroom to another he has to figure out how he will get there in advance — not just the route but what might need to move for him to get there. This has made him a much more systematic thinker, he said, which helps him as an engineer.

“Engineering is not getting any easier and the problems we are facing are not getting easier, so we’ve got to have people who think different,” he said.

He added that he knows college campuses can be intimidating places for kids with disabilities, and he wants to show them colleges are not only nothing to be scared of, but places they should be considering for themselves.

“I’m not digging any ditches anytime soon,” he said. “This (pointing to his head) is the maximum way I can contribute to society.”

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Anthony Rimel covers weekend events, education, courts and crime and can be reached at anthony.rimel@lee.net, 541-758-9526, or via Twitter @anthonyrimel.

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