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The Path to Learning A team of Washington and Lee engineering majors is designing and building a walking trail for children served by Blue Ridge Autism and Achievement Center’s Lexington location.

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Employees and clients of Blue Ridge Autism and Achievement Center’s Lexington branch were thrilled to move into a modern new building near Hull’s Drive-in, but one feature of the former location was sorely missed: the playground and fenced-in yard.

“Our students benefit from structured play and instruction indoors and outside, so having an outdoor area that is accessible is beneficial to their learning. It is a goal of our program to have our students access their community and natural environment as much as possible,” said Meagan Harding, a behavior analyst and special education teacher at BRAAC.

Fortunately, the wooded land behind the new building is a blank canvas, and four Washington and Lee University engineering majors are working to transform it into an interactive walking trail for the children serviced by the school. The trail will double BRAAC’s space for activity.

Annie Jeckovich, Walker Brand, Kyle Ruedisili and Ryan Brink, all members of the Class of 2018, spent Fall Term mapping the trail, assessing and pricing materials and labor, and communicating with BRAAC to fine tune the plan. They hope to finish the project by the end of Winter Term.

The students were able to liaise with BRAAC through W&L’s Office of Community-Based Learning and create a community-based research (CBR) project. Such projects provide students, faculty and community partners an opportunity to collaborate on mutually beneficial research aimed at addressing community-identified needs. The walking trail also will fulfill the new year-long capstone project requirement for engineering majors.

“The overarching idea is that students are able to pick a project they want to focus on for the entire year and take it from the initial problem to a proposed solution, then demonstrate that it works,” said Joel Kuehner, department head and professor of physics and engineering. “They learn a lot in classes, but this stimulates a true career environment.”

Blue Ridge Autism Center was founded in Roanoke, Va., in 2002; in 2009, it merged with The Achievement Center, a program of St. Vincent Home, to form BRAAC. Today, it has locations in Roanoke, Lynchburg and Lexington, and serves families who face unique learning challenges, including autism, ADD, and physical or visual impairment. The Lexington office works with children ages 2-16, Harding said, and is currently licensed by the Department of Education to serve 10 students.

Through their initial research, the W&L team learned that some people with sensory disorders like autism are hypersensitive to stimuli while others are hyposensitive. They found that nature immersion can have a positive impact by exposing children to sounds, smells, textures and other stimuli they would not encounter indoors.

The project was not as easy as selecting and shaping a route for the path. The students had to consider safety and accessibility, especially for clients with physical impairment, as well as the cost-effectiveness and durability of materials, the impact of the project on the environment, and aesthetics.

“We wanted to create a long-term solution for BRAAC,” Jeckovich said, “a trail that manages foot traffic, weather and other impacts and is easily maintained.”

Using GPS equipment borrowed from the Geology Department, and armed with machetes against thorny undergrowth, they mapped out an ADA-compliant trail that will weave around trees and use existing game trails. The path, which will be about eight feet wide and covered in wood mulch, will have a short section (150-200 feet long) and a long section (325-350 feet) with three rest stations along the way.

According to both Jeckovich and Ruedisili, they were surprised to find that the most challenging part of the project has not been the design, but the act of communicating with multiple parties, including contractors, and the logistics of funding and organizing.

“I didn’t expect this much communication but it’s definitely not a bad thing,” Ruedisili said. “It’s nice to not spend all your time sitting in a room running calculations.”

Harding said she has appreciated the students’ professionalism: “I can really see that they are striving to make this the best opportunity for our students. They have come numerous times and toured the facility inside and out, they have emailed weekly updates, and all of their communication has been thorough and thoughtful.”

The next steps will include hiring a contractor to grade and remove large rocks, planning a volunteer work day, and raising money to pay for the project. Each team in the capstone course receives $1,000 in funding, with additional support from the McJunkin Endowment for Student Engagement and the Office of the Provost. But that will not cover the full cost of this project, so Jeckovich said they hope to find a contractor who will donate time or labor. In addition, a crowdfunding page has been set up.

The team hopes that in coming years, other W&L students will expand on their project, adding sensory stations along the route to make it even more stimulating and educational for children. Harding said everyone at the office is excited to see the finished product and its future iterations.

“I think the W&L students have really heard our concerns and feedback and utilized it to make the recommendations for our trail,” she said. “It is definitely aligning with what we envisioned for our students. It’s going to be such a phenomenal thing for our children and our staff. Being immersed in nature and having access to outdoor experiences will aid our students in meeting some of their physical and sensorial needs.”

Kuehner said the BRAAC project is a great example of the kind of work that W&L students, through the Office of Community-Based Learning and the Community-Academic Research Alliance, can do in the community. He credited the folks in these programs, including Tammi Hellwig, Alessandra Del Conte Dickovick and Marisa Charley, with paving the way for these valuable projects.

“The students get to see that what they have studied for four years isn’t just a fairy tale in a textbook — you are really going to make somebody’s life better,” Kuehner said. “And to actually have the community be excited is very rewarding. They may never think about a final exam again, but I don’t think they will soon forget these projects.”