Matt Shupe, left, collaborates with Madelyn Schrot and Anna Morrin on researching and designing the Peapod chair for children with special needs

A Special Chair for a Special Child, Designed with Love

Students Earn State Recognition for ‘Peapod’ Chair

by Tom Rademacher, photos by Dianne Carroll Burdick  

It's billed as a "Health Sciences Early College Academy" for area high schoolers to get their feet wet in healthcare professions, biomedical technology and science in general.

But what drew me to a trio of students engaged in the program was the source of their motivation:

They're propelled by empathy.

Matt Shupe – one of the three, and a senior at the West Michigan Aviation Academy – has a sister who was born with cerebral palsy. And because of his efforts -- coupled with those of Health Sciences classmates Madelyn Schrot of Forest Hills Northern and Anna Morrin of Cedar Springs High – it's entirely likely that Matt's sister, Anji, will benefit from something dubbed "The Peapod."

"What we were trying to do is create something for kids who want to participate in everything and not be left out," says Matt. "When you see a need, you try to do something to fill it."

You likely won't find a class in peapod-building at your traditional high school. But the changing face of education is sparked by innovation, and arguably nowhere is that more evident than within programs sponsored by Kent ISD.

In this case, the intermediate district fosters a collaboration among the Kent Career Tech Center, Spectrum Health Innovations (SHI), and Grand Valley State and Ferris State universities.

Tech Center students learn how to integrate the learning environment with real-world applications, and go forth armed with knowledge and experience they can extend directly to college and career.

Matt Shupe uses tools and other materials to create a first-draft prototype of the Peapod, which was inspired by his little sister

Building a Better Mousetrap

SHI works with Spectrum Health staff to develop new healthcare products and technologies from concept to reality.

Together with the two colleges, they make possible the Health Sciences Early College Academy, where juniors and seniors with a penchant for science and math and a minimum GPA of 3.0 sign on for one-year programs in either biomedical technology, diagnostic health or therapeutic health professions.

Qualifying students can earn up to seven college credits per year and may also qualify to take entry level certification exams for jobs in nursing and phlebotomy.

Perhaps most significantly, they participate in close quarters with full-time healthcare professionals and others who serve as touchstones to the real-world occupations they might be pursuing.

Which brings us back to the Peapod. It's an adaptive device designed and engineered by Matt and Madelyn and Anna for the sake of Anji, 8, a student at Coit Creative Arts Academy, who needs specialized support when trying to sit upright.

The Peapod happens to be Anji's nickname, but it's not a stretch to extend the device's function to that of an actual peapod in how a pod envelops a pea.

In any event, it's the trio's quest for a better mousetrap in trying to provide an improved medical device for people in need.

Are there already adaptive devices on the market for folks with the sort of need Anji has?

Yes.

Is it a product that can be improved upon?

Exactly.

"These students look at what is and then think, 'How can things be better?'" offers Russ Wallsteadt, an Academy instructor.

Madelyn Schrot, left, of Forest Hills Northern, and Anna Morrin of Cedar Springs High research pressure points and cell behavior that align with the Peapod designAiming to Help with Health

Toward that goal, the Academy provides experiences that you might not conjure from students' home high schools and environs.

"I got tired of my life the way it was," offers Anna, 17, a junior at Cedar Springs. "So I searched and found a program that could actually take me further into a career. I'm basically aiming to become a pathologist who extracts body fluids to diagnose diseases. Getting here is a big step."

Madelyn, a 16-year-old junior at Forest Hills Northern, has her sights set on becoming a physical therapist. Unfortunately, injuries she sustained while performing gymnastics two years ago – and which plague her still today -- put her in front of PTs for rehab's sake. But the experience took hold: "I'd like to work with people with sports injuries similar to mine."

Matt is chasing a career in biomedical engineering, as one of eight adopted children in a brood of 12 parented by Helen and Jeff Shupe. Many of Matt's siblings have special needs, creating a family where, in his mother's words, "We put the fun into dysfunctional." Matt himself deals with scoliosis, and is missing a thumb on his right hand.

That didn't stop him, though, from waking up at 3 in the morning some time back to start sketching the first iteration of the Peapod. He shrugs and a thin grin comes across his face in explaining the motivation: "I just want to help people. And not only for my sister, but a convenience for my family because it will be easier to transport her." The Peapod also folds down into a laptop case or bag.

'When you see a need, you try to do something to fill it.' – Matt Shupe, co-designer of the Peapod chair

The Peapod, Matt asserts, offers more support on the sides than a popular version already in place. "And it's hinged more to conform to a child of any size."

For Anji, it especially means a better way to eat at restaurants.

"She's excited about the chair," Matt says. "She's eager for it to be a finished product."

The prototype of the Peapod chair, an adaptive restaurant chair device designed for someone with cerebral palsy Design Wins Awards

Though only a prototype has been developed so far, the Peapod was good enough to earn a gold medal at the regional Health Occupations Students of America competition in Kalamazoo earlier this year. That catapulted the team into the state finals in Traverse City, where they finished a respectable eighth out of 40 entries.

Their entry was bolstered by input from two representatives from SHI – Mike Czechowskyj, a clinical innovation specialist; and Eric Van Middendorp, a biomedical engineer.

Says Wallsteadt of his charges, "I love this team because they took on the challenge of it, which is a mechanical thing, but thought about how much better it could be psychosocially for the patient."

Wallsteadt has a grandfatherly way about him – patient, soft-spoken, given to lulls so that his students fill in the blanks, and learn in the process. "A cool guy," says Matt. "Very loving. He keeps an eye out for us."

"He's always able to relate stuff back to physical therapy for me," says Madelyn.

Adds Anna, "He's caring and he really understands basically what I go through sometimes with anxiety issues. Sometimes I'm scared of new things, but he's a calming figure in our lives."

For Wallsteadt, it's all about putting real tools and techniques into his students' hands before they enter college.

He talks about students with high school GPAs of 4.0 going into a "freefall to a 3.0" when they arrive on a college campus, because they're suddenly confronted with stressors they never saw coming. That's sometimes compounded by suddenly switching gears to learn scientific methods that extend beyond history books.

Wallsteadt, for example, is all about what tomorrow holds. "Let's get past cell division," he says. "Everything they study should be about the future."

And on behalf of the people in our midst and those to follow. The primary reason Matt Shupe woke up that night and started drawing?

"A love of my sister, mostly."

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Submitted on: May 23rd 2017

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