A beautiful marriage of brains and philanthropy

It may have been an unexpected sight for those passing by the classroom inside PCC’s busy STEM Center: Ten students focused their attention on a collection of disco balls and bubble blowers. 

Bubbles and disco lights are terrific, no doubt, but why was this happening?

Upon closer look, the students – all members of PCC’s STEM Club – weren’t just checking out playthings. They were learning about a simple way to help kids be kids by taking the toys apart and making them more accessible for children who lack the fine motor skills needed to push small buttons.

In the center of this lesson was Sarah Ahlstrom, a pre-engineering student at PCC. Ahlstrom brought the project idea to the club in January with an objective of creating some joy for kids who otherwise might not get this experience.

Ahlstrom brings firsthand knowledge to the endeavor. Her daughter Zoey, 7, was diagnosed with Rett Syndrome just before her third birthday. Rett Syndrome is a neurological disorder caused by a gene mutation; it primarily affects girls and typically is diagnosed around age 2, according to the Rocky Mountain Rett Association (RMRA).

“Your world is completely turned upside down,” said Ahlstrom. “We were told she may not walk, may have seizures, may not be able to use her hands.”

People who have Rett experience loss of speech and motor function and may have breathing abnormalities. There is no treatment or cure.

Ahlstrom is a board member for RMRA. The association donated the toys and materials for the STEM Club project.
Fellow club member Dom Paulo and Ahlstrom taught the other students how to disassemble each toy and add an audio cable to the original power switch. This straightforward process allows the switch to be activated with a large 3D-printed button that’s sensitive to touch – and it’s significantly less expensive than many adapted toys on the market that are priced from 50% to 200% higher than other toys, according to Ahlstrom.

The adapted toys will go to the Rett Clinic at Children’s Hospital Colorado in Aurora to be given away. Club members plan to adapt 40 items in their first phase of the project, providing bubble blowers for ages 6 and younger and disco balls for those 7 and older. 

“It’s really beautiful to see that our students are so intelligent and wanting to come together and help,” said Amanda Mayes, PCC science faculty member and STEM Club advisor. “It’s a beautiful marriage of brains and philanthropy. I’m proud of them.” 

“Rett’s is not hopeless,” said Ahlstrom, “and you can make a difference in other people’s lives. To be able to give joy back to other families means so much.”

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