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Activity: Phones for Special Needs

(Provided courtesy of Women in Engineering Pro-Active Network, or WEPAN)

In this two-period (90 minutes total) activity for grades 3 and 4, students learn the basics of engineering associated with the design of telephones to make them more accessible for people who have a visual or hearing impairment or who lack fine motor skills.


Phones are everywhere in our lives. We have them in our homes, schools, at work, and in public access areas. The use of cellular phones has put them in places we never had them before such as cars. Phones provide an easy way for most of us to communicate with other people. The design of telephones by engineers has focused primarily on making them useful for the average person, and on the aesthetics of the phone. This unit focuses on the engineering re-design of phones to improve their usefulness for people with special needs.

Skills & Standards
1. Analyze a product’s components and their functions.
2. Recognize a design need or engineering problem.
3. Communicate the solution through drawing and speaking.

Materials required per group:

  • Real telephone (2 or 3) per class or 1 per group
  • Paper
  • Markers, crayons and/or colored pencils

Materials required per group: Part 2
Assorted materials to make a model of a phone such as:

  • Shoebox, small shirt box, jewelry box or other small containers
  • Construction paper
  • Markers, crayons
  • Empty film canisters
  • Paper towel or toilet paper tubes
  • Glue and tape
  • Buttons
  • Twine/yarn


  • Briefly explain engineering (See Presenter’s Guide for more detail.)
  • Engineers use scientific information to design and create useful things.
  • In designing and creating, the engineer goes through a problem solving process in which both math and science are important components.

Introduce the activity to the students.

Have a general discussion about telephones. Encourage students to share what they know about telephones and what types of things are important on a telephone. Present the problem and who wants to

Divide the class into groups if you have more than one adult leader.

Each group of students should have an adult leader. As the students work on the activity present how can you help solve the problem to help them with the brainstorming and testing.

Activity: Re-thinking telephones

This activity has the students participate in a variety of simple activities to better understand the issues people with special needs may have. With these experiences in mind, the students will redesign phones so that they are more useful for people with special needs. The activity has been developed based on a traditional engineering design process which pose key questions — all identified in boldface type, that help the students approach the problem as engineers.


What’s the problem? Many people have hearing, visual impairments, or limited motor skills. These people also need to be able to use telephones to communicate. Often the standard phone is difficult for them to use.

NOTE: Each group should do the following process for each of the three special needs separately. It is important to have at least one sample phone and one adult leader for each group of students. Be aware of the sensitive nature of special needs and discuss them with a positive outlook.

  • Vision impairment: Use the example phone. Have the students close their eyes, try to pick up the receiver and call the emergency number 911.
  • Hearing impairment: Have the students pretend that they have a hard time hearing. Have them discuss the types of things they need to hear when using a phone such as dial tone, voices, and ringing.
  • Lack of fine motor skills: Use the example phone. Have the students limit their fine skill hand motion by either putting socks or mittens over their hands or by wrapping their fingers together with masking tape. Then have them try to pick up the receiver and call the emergency number 911.


Who wants to know?
Telephone companies want to develop telephones that everyone can use.

How can you help solve the problem?
Think about the special needs you just experienced.

How do your phone needs vary from people without these special needs?

What suggestions do you have for how phones could be changed to meet their needs?

Use Worksheet 1: Design Considerations as a reference to facilitate
the discussion.

  1. Divide the students into groups of 2 or 3. Assign each group with a specific special need (hearing or vision impairment or lack of fine motor skills) to focus on for their phone redesign. Make sure to assign each type of special need so that there will be a variety of solutions.
  2. Have each team draw a picture of their proposed design. You may want to have the students use Worksheet 2 as a reference page for their drawing. Encourage creative solutions in their drawings.
  3. After the drawings are done, lead a discussion in which each group presents their idea(s) for the phone.


  1. Distribute the construction materials and have each group of students build a model of their proposed phone.
  2. Will your suggestion(s) work? Have each group present their drawing or model to the class.
  3. During the presentation encourage them to show their special feature(s) and describe how this will help the people with the type of special need that was assigned to their group.

See Worksheet 2 for some of the considerations.

  1. Who can help you solve the problem?
  2. What type of information or knowledge is needed to understand special needs and telephone design?
  3. Human factor engineers are concerned with designing items so that they can be comfortably used. Materials engineers work with the plastics that are used in phone construction.

Engineering Summary

Finish with a discussion about how the students acted as engineers. Reflect on the activity and spend time discussing what was discovered and learned. How are the phones for people with special needs different? How are they the same? Present will your suggestion work to think about potential re-tests.

Career Connection

Discuss what types of jobs are involved with understanding telephone design and how to produce effective telephones. Asking “Who can help you solve the problem?” may get students to think about the type of people who would know.

This video may offer additional ideas for class discussion.

Making the Connection
M. Cyr Tufts University, CEEO

Copyright © 2001 WEPAN

Funded by Lucent Technologies Foundation

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