Tim McDonald (Shanel Romain/Staff)

As an Adapted Physical Education teacher at Gwendolyn Brooks Middle School, Timothy McDonald has raised the bar of independence for his students with disabilities, putting him in nomination for a second year for the LifeChanger of the year award.

McDonald, a P.E. teacher since 2010, has always used recommended Adapted P.E. equipment that is modified for students with disabilities. While those are helpful, he’s made the initiative to supplement those tools, as it seemed there was always something missing for certain students and their individual abilities.

“They just need something a little more,” McDonald said.

In collaboration with the design classes at Gwendolyn Brooks, 325 S. Kenilworth Ave., McDonald has shared with them his ideas for add-ons to equipment. Design students have since developed assistive technology devices for McDonald’s students, enabling full participation.

The LifeChanger Award is a national recognition program that honors K-12 public school educators and employees who are making a difference in the lives of students. The winner will collect a prize of up to $10,000, according to a Sept. 26 news release.

McDonald’s attention to areas in which a student needs a little extra push or assistance, with or without a disability, has inspired Karen Reed, the aunt of one of McDonald’s student, to nominate him twice. She says she will nominate him each year until he wins. 

Reed is also a former agent at National Life Group Insurance Company, the sponsors of the award.

Reed said sports are very important to her and it was just as important to her that her nephew with autism be exposed to an array of sports.

“[McDonald] will not stop until he has introduced every sport, every type of physical activity to his students, specifically with my nephew, and try and engage them,” Reed said.

Thinking about how underappreciated teachers can be for their efforts, McDonald was the first person Reed thought of for the award.

McDonald’s main goal for his students is for them to be able to participate independently in the sport or fitness lesson at hand, and a day-to-day skill is being able to pass the ball.

One student in particular, McDonald said, couldn’t throw a ball independently. This sparked his suggestion to build an additional button she could push using her knee to use her own force and body in throwing a  ball.

“We place it next to her knee, because she independently moved her knee more than most body parts,” McDonald said. “When she pressed the button, it would activate this shooting device that we call the ‘launcher’ – it would launch a ball, maybe like five, eight feet.”

Chris Pros has taught Design Technology at Brooks for nine years, and in planning the launcher, he and his students knew, according to McDonald, there were movements the student could control in her leg and the button would suit that ability.

For this design, Pros worked with students in his Makerspace Club and they began brainstorming ideas involving household parts they had access to. They first took parts from a wiffle ball pitching machine and gathered unused buttons from McDonald and the woman who oversees assistive technology.

Once those buttons were soldered, they installed microcontrollers to control the device from an app that they also built. That way, Pros said, the teacher could start the motor, and when the student was ready, she could move her leg and it launched the ball.

“She knocked down the bowling pin that someone was guarding the first time it launched. And I said ‘wow, it really works,’” Pros said.

When McDonald approaches Pros with ideas for his students’ equipment, it’s Pros’ students who have full creative freedom in designing the contraptions, and he guides them.

“We know what we’re trying to solve – brainstorming solutions, generating concepts, developing prototypes, testing, or making changes,” Pros said.

Pros said projects always turn out better when applicable to real world challenges, such as McDonald’s class.

Students use a coding software called VEX Robotics to outline their idea. The process is followed by building the mechanisms and devices with VEX parts, which they will then code, test, correct and change sensors for until it is complete.

McDonald says as an Adapted P.E. teacher, he has help from teacher assistants, social workers, physical therapists and classroom teachers, who all help ensure students in his class receive the resources and help they need for their physical education. And so this nomination represents him, but them as well, he says.

“When [students] have access to this equipment that allows them to be right in the middle of the game,  not on the side of the game, … it’s just so unbelievable that their interest levels with the sports increase,” McDonald said.

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