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Samsung Solve: Where Are They Now? Kentucky Middle School Prioritizes Safety & Accessibility


Over the past few years, school safety has increasingly been top-of-mind, primarily in the context of fires, severe weather, and active shooter scenarios. Preparedness procedures and drills are carefully designed to develop muscle memory for staff and students, so they know exactly what to do and where to go when the alarm sounds. But in case of emergency, what happens to students with disabilities? That was the question that John Leistner posed to his students in 2019 when they began brainstorming ideas for their entry for Samsung Solve for Tomorrow, the competition that challenges students in grades 6-12 to use science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) to tackle issues in their community.

The technology coordinator and Student Technology Leadership Program coach has spent 23 years of his 31-year career as an educator with Ashland Middle School, a small-town public school located in northeastern Kentucky that serves approximately 700 children. Both John and Ashland Middle School are no strangers to the Solve for Tomorrow program as they’ve participated five times, including the current 2021-2022 competition cycle; have placed three times; and have even taken home the National Winner prize for boldly addressing the opioid epidemic. Beyond the technology and classroom supplies that they were awarded over the years, the competition has positively impacted the school, inspiring the creation of specialized problem-based learning classes for eighth graders, and driving regional recognition.

Innovations resulting from STEM fields have touched nearly every aspect of our lives and are vital to our future. That’s why problem-based learning should be the foundation of the American educational system. As educators, we must make it our mission to utilize STEM to transition our students beyond the simple memorization of facts or formulas to teach them how to apply what they’ve learned to solve real-world problems.

TeacherJohn Leistner, Technology Coordinator & Student Tech Leadership Program Coach
SchoolAshland Middle School
LocationAshland, Kentucky
Samsung Solve for Tomorrow Stats2017-2018 Samsung Solve for Tomorrow National Winner
2018-2019 Samsung Solve for Tomorrow State Winner
2019-2020 Samsung Solve for Tomorrow National Finalist
2021-2022 Samsung Solve for Tomorrow competitor

Building STEM solutions to solve real-world problems is no easy task though. In the early months of 2020, John and his 20-person Solve for Tomorrow student team were hard at work developing a prototype for their concept, which helps locate and move mobility-impaired students safely out of a multi-level building in the event of an emergency. The innovation, initially dubbed “T-Safe Mobility Transporter” (The T is for tomcat, the school mascot), started to take shape in the form of a mobile app and an emergency evacuation apparatus. Intricate coding was required to integrate attendance, school schedule, disability, and new injury information into the location app. 3D modeling software was used to make the transporter design process more efficient. And with invaluable guidance from a panel of community partners, such as police, fire, and disability advocacy leaders, the prototype was completed.

Students from the Ashland Middle School Solve for Tomorrow team take measurements for their project.

According to the CDC, 13.7 percent of people with a disability have a mobility disability with serious difficulty walking or climbing stairs. And 70 percent of all Americans will, at some point in their lives, have a temporary or permanent disability that makes stair climbing impossible, based on data from the National Fire Protection Association. But safety and accessibility are not just statistics to the students at Ashland Middle School. Since being named a National Finalist for their 2019-2020 entry, they’ve continued to pursue emergency preparedness ideas to ensure that no child is left behind because, as they see it, sheltering in place is not an option.

Community partners are key for schools participating in the Samsung Solve for Tomorrow program. In Ashland, KY, a local fire department provided feedback for the Skylift.

In September 2021, the T-Safe Mobility Transporter underwent its maiden voyage. The elevators were down throughout the school towards the end of the day. Students were filing to the buses to head home – except for Skye, an eighth grader at the time, who had no way of exiting the three-story building. The brave 15-year-old girl was hoisted onto the transporter and a crew comprised of John, the school principal, the guidance counselor, Skye’s instructional assistant and others descended the stairwell. Skye likened it to a “roller coaster ride” experience because of the various turns and angles. “I was a little nervous when they first lifted me up, but I had all this support around me. It was a team effort.”

Ashland Middle School student, Skye, is safely brought down to the main level by staff after the elevators power went out as the school day was wrapping up.

The T-Safe Mobility Transporter has since been renamed “Skylift” in honor of Skye. John and the Ashland Middle School students have also reciprocated the community support provided during the development of the project by using their 3D printer to create face shields and masks for the Ashland Fire Department during the early months of the pandemic. As for how this initiative has impacted them, John says, “Thanks to the Samsung Solve for Tomorrow program, our middle school students are exposed to experiences that are going to elevate them. They’re taking on top issues of national importance with confidence. And it’s brought us closer to the community. Essentially, we’re appreciative of the day that we received the first application. It’s really changed our school.”

Editor’s note: Best of luck to the Ashland Middle School students that are participating in the Samsung Solve for Tomorrow 2021-2022 competition – the school’s fifth time! They’ve already been selected as a State Winner for their STEM project that harnesses AI to assist individuals stricken with Alzheimer’s Disease to improve their quality of life.

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