Imagine a class where you spend an entire semester working collaboratively, and your only assignment is to create something using technology that could be helpful to other people. As the 16 students in Beth Crawford’s Sophomore Scholars in Residence class Technology, Cognition, and Behavior quickly learned, the possibilities are endless and the end result is incredibly rewarding.

“I developed the course based on my interest in the way that humans rely on external devices to support cognition and behavior,” Crawford says. She and her students spent the fall semester exploring such topics as the implications of using devices to store information, big data and behavior tracking, human-computer interaction, and video game addiction.

Crawford focused the group’s work on investigating how technology can help people with developmental disabilities navigate the world around them. The class read about the use of video modeling, iPad apps, and educational games geared toward children and adults with autism. Caitie Murphy, ’16, whose brother has autism, was excited to see firsthand how technology can level the playing field for those with developmental disabilities. “Technology can leverage things that children already excel at and help them with things they may have difficulty with,” she says.

The class traveled to the San Francisco Bay Area where they visited the Virtual Human Interaction Lab at Stanford University, and met with a variety of tech-based companies. The trip served a dual purpose: it allowed the students to bond, and the knowledge they gleaned from the various technology experts gave them confidence for the task that lay ahead. Timothy Binns, ’16, says, “it gave us the go-ahead to dream big, to make something that works.”

With a semester of exploration behind them, they spent the spring semester tackling Crawford’s open-ended challenge: “I told them they were to use technology to create something that could be helpful, particularly to children in our community with disabilities,” she says.

The students broke into groups and partnered with the Faison School for Autism and St. Mary’s Hospital, two Richmond-based organizations, to identify a unique need for the population each organization served, and develop a solution to meet it.

Along the way, they taught themselves new technology and software to create their products and developed a deeper understanding of the challenges that individuals with autism face.

One team created an iBook that would help children who are patients at St. Mary’s and their parents understand the experience of undergoing an EEG, a test that measures electrical activity in the brain. A second group assisted The Faison School with a data management project by creating Shoperone, an iPad app that helped individuals with autism navigate a grocery store and the process of shopping. A third cohort created a musical play mat that would help Faison School students ease into social interactions with each other in a fun, non-invasive way.

The students presented the completed projects in April and shared them with their community partners, where they are already being used. Many plan to continue their work with the community partners after the class is over. Murphy, who worked on the iBook, already has plans for a second iBook in partnership with St. Mary’s. Becca Funke, ’16, who collaborated on the Shoperone app, says, “to show you’re passionate about an idea, to take it out of class and into your community and potentially to anyone that has an iPad, as a sophomore in college is pretty awesome.”

“The students ended up doing things that were vastly different than what I had envisioned,” Crawford says. “I was thrilled with what they were able to accomplish.”