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Robotics Team Rebuilds MCTS Farebox to Help Teach Kids Who Are Visually-Impaired


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Julie Hapeman, a certified Orientation & Mobility Specialist at Gaenslen School in Milwaukee, teaches students who are blind or have low vision.

For years, Travel Trainers from the Milwaukee County Transit System’s Mobility Management team have visited her school – and others – to help children learn how to ride the bus.

“My students absolutely love riding the bus,” Hapeman said. “They love everything about MCTS. They love to call on the phone and talk to the customer service team to get directions on how to get certain places. They love the sounds, they love tapping the card, and they love pulling the stop cord.”

The problem, Hapeman said, is that students with visual impairments often need extra time while boarding active buses in order to find the smartcard target on the farebox and then tap their card.

“Sometimes it seems like we’re holding everyone else up,” Hapeman said. “So we normally have to rush our kids through the learning process more than we’d like to.”

Hapeman dreamed that someday she might be able to get a training farebox set up in her classroom so that students could practice at their own pace. 

That inspired the MCTS Mobility Management team to contact Dale Noll, a MCTS retiree who is now head coach of the robotics team at Pewaukee High School. 

“We explained that our Maintenance Department had an old farebox that was damaged and no longer usable,” said Fran Musci, Director of Paratransit at MCTS. “We asked Dale if he’d be interested in turning it into a working training tool for the kids at Gaenslen School.”

Noll jumped at the opportunity for a special project that would engage members of his team, Team 1259 — ‘Paradigm Shift,’ during the offseason. 

“We’ve taken the farebox and used it as an educational opportunity for our students to learn more about the engineering of what all goes into this kind of equipment,” Noll said. “At the same time, we’re trying to create a new bill-handling mechanism, a new mechanism for reading the M-CARDs and other smartcards, while also making sure the device gives audio feedback for the visually-impaired.”

The robotics team is made up of students from all four grade levels at the high school.

“We’re trying to make a sensory experience where if you were to tap your card it’ll make a little ‘bing’ sound,” said William Gergen. “We’re just trying to get it so that kids can experience how the farebox really works.”

“It’s really impacting kids who may need help with this in the real world,” said Benjamin Young. “It’s really making their life a lot easier and it allows our students to appreciate that.”

“It’s a cool project to be working on because it’s something that helps out the community,” said Sophia Gustafson. “It’s something that’s really great for us to be able to do.”

Noll is proud of the work his team accomplished.

“The robotics program isn’t about building robots,” Noll said. “For me, it’s about building students. And this is just part of that.”

In March 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic shut many things down — including in-person learning — the robotics team had to put the farebox project on hold. Then, in January 2021, Noll had the honor of delivering the finished product to Gaenslen School, where it will be used once students return to in-person learning.

“This will be an opportunity for kids of all ability levels to practice at their own pace,” Hapeman said. “Thanks to everybody involved — especially the robotics team from Pewaukee High School — for putting this together to help our students learn how to ride the bus. It's a valuable skill that will help them gain independence as they grow older.”