By Lou Baldwin
Special to The CS&T
Vision and eyesight are not the same thing.
Students from St. Lucy Day School for Children with Visual Impairments proved that during the Philadelphia Regional Future Cities Competition held Jan. 24 at the Sheet Metal Workers Union Hall in South Philadelphia.
In the competition, seventh and eighth grade students build table-top scale models of an ideal city they envision and give presentations before panels of professional engineers, with the overall winner advancing to a national competition in Washington, D.C.
There were 24 schools and programs from Pennsylvania and New Jersey represented in the Philadelphia competition, held in conjunction with Delaware Valley Engineers Week.
St. Lucy is located on the campus of Holy Innocents School in Juniata Park where students are mainstreamed for some courses, but not all. The students had three challenges to overcome – not only did they have extremely limited eyesight, the school, with only 24 students in its entirety, was the tiniest to compete, and this was their first time at the competition.
A total of five children worked on the project and all four present for the judging were eighth graders, according to their faculty advisor, Diane Mullen. Through working on the project, they learned about teamwork and confidence and “they are having a great time,” Mullen said.
It was the first time a school for disabilities competed, according to Mary Moyer, school coordinator for the program.
“It is very exciting,” Moyer said. “The program teaches academic skills, good citizenship skills, learning to work as a team and overcoming obstacles, which is something the St. Lucy kids already know about.”
The students themselves were eager to explain the features of their well-constructed model of their city, “Ssecca,” which is “access” spelled backwards.
“Our city is geared to accessibility,” explained Joe Winscom. “There are communication stations with large-print signs and Braille and things that read to you as you go along. We have hover cars that are accessible to the blind and to people with any kind of disability. They take you where you want to go, you don’t have to drive them.”
The schools of Ssecca had the same principle, according to David Brown. “Today kids with disabilities and kids without disabilities are split apart. In our school everybody is together,” he said, explaining there were various aids planned in the city to help accomplish this.
“We know we have disabilities that other people don’t have, but we have a heart that tells us we should be here. The other kids aren’t better than us or smarter than us; they just have better eyesight than us. As kids with disabilities we feel that we can’t do many things other kids can do. We wanted to make a city where everybody can be independent and feel just like a normal kid.”
Heather Morrison was excited about the project especially because they were competing with children without disabilities. “I’m used to this,” she said. “I came from a public school where most of the kids had normal sight and my whole family has normal sight.”
“I’m very impressed with what they did, especially with their impairment. They did a good job in preparing the project. Hopefully they will pursue careers in engineering,” commented one judge, Ruben David, a Philadelphia engineer and a member of St. Christopher Parish.
Mike McAtee, another judge and a member of Queen of the Universe Parish in Levittown, said, “I had no clue going in that they had a disability. I wasn’t aware of it. Their presentation was so good, and their enthusiasm was inspiring.”
In addition to their moderators, the children of most schools receive mentoring from volunteers in the engineering field. While the students actually design and build the city, the mentors explain to them what is practical, what infrastructure a city needs, and just as important, what the judges will probably look for.
In St. Lucy’s case, John Getty from the Philadelphia Streets Department was one of the mentors. “We spent an hour or an hour and a half with them once a week for three months or so,” Getty said. “I’m impressed by what they did on their own and how they worked together as a team. They are pretty impressive kids. Each one of them understood every aspect of their city, and they did all of the research themselves.”
As part of the competition, various judges went to the different tables questioning the students on specific aspects of their model city.
One judge asked the St. Lucy students, “How will you transport food into your city?”
Getty realized this was one question that hadn’t come up during the mentoring sessions. He discovered the students had worked it out on their own.
Without hesitation, Joe Inscom answered, “Ssecca is on the Colorado River. Solar and wind-powered barges will bring everything in.”
In the end it was the team from Kutztown Area Middle School that won the local competition and will go to Washington. Our Lady Help of Christians, Abington, was first runner-up and St. John the Evangelist, Morrisville, was second runner-up. St. Christopher School got Honorable Mention.
But St. Lucy did not go home empty-handed. They took the Project Technology Award, and yes, the Award for Best Use of Technology in Transportation.
Lou Baldwin is a member of St. Leo Parish and a freelance writer.