The Life Science Class at Woodland

June 13, 2006

They're all trying new tasks they've never tried before. They feel so good about themselves…the amount of self-esteem they get…even the expressions on their faces.  It’s incredible.  And it’s happening at the Life Science class at Woodland.

The Woodland Developmental Center in Marysville, Michigan, serves 200 students with disabilities, from ages 3 to 25 years.  Programs include classes, therapy, sheltered workshops, and the specialty areas of gym, swim, music, art, and the Life Science class. 


For many years, special education teacher Sue Van Camp taught Life Science in a large “home economics” type room, located within Woodland Center.  At Life Science, students perform home living skills, such as food preparation, setting and bussing tables, laundry, and household cleaning tasks. 

Then, in 2001, St. Clair RESA ( built the Living Learning Center on the Woodland campus.  This 3000 sq ft building was designed as a model home for barrier-free wheelchair accessibility, and soon earned the name “the house” from staff and students.  The walkway from Woodland Center to “the house” enables students to go over to the building for Life Science class, and practice skills in the home-like setting. 

This new facility inspired Life Science teacher Sue Van Camp to create a whole new never-before-possible class:  “the Ortho class.”  These were the most capable wheelchair users of Woodland, who would have their very own Life Science class, because now there was a space large enough!

“I knew I couldn’t do it alone,” says Sue.  “So I collaborated with the Occupational Therapy team here.  The OT’s agreed to team teach it with me – they also wanted to see what these students were capable of doing in a barrier-free environment.”

The class of 8 students would meet once a week for an hour.  The goal was to teach the students to do as many household tasks as independently as possible in this wheelchair accessible home. Soon, students were discovering the many things they could do, that they’d never been able to try before.  The class was a challenge for students and staff, but a great success!

By 2004-5 school year, it was so exciting that the Ortho class created a video of their accomplishments.  By then, the MOVE program had been implemented at Woodland, and part of the video showed the Ortho class in their Pacer gait trainers going on the walkway over to “the house.”  But that was just the beginning…

The MOVE-trained physical therapy staff at Woodland approached Sue Van Camp.  “They didn’t want to interfere with the success of my Ortho program,” remembers Sue.  “They just said if there was any way they could incorporate MOVE into the Ortho class, they’d be willing to help me give it a try, and only as much as I wanted and where I wanted them too.”

Jenny is a 21-year-old student who is a left-hemi with cerebral palsy.  She was given the Life Science assignment of washing dishes on the first day she was placed in the Pacer.  And Jenny put away the dishes in an upper cupboard for the first time in her life. 

Sue realized that the barrier-free, wheelchair accessible design lent itself to the MOVE equipment.  Although her students had become independent at tasks in their wheelchairs, being in the MOVE equipment would open up more discoveries and accomplishments.

 “When in the Pacer, Jenny carries a pillow by propping it on a basket attached to the front of the Pacer, and walks with it from one side of the room over to the bed,” reports Michele Lemanski, OT.  “She walks around the bed, making the bed.  She’s become progressively more independent at that.  She just recently tried vacuuming, using an adaptive device to push the start button on the vacuum, and she was so thrilled, she just laughed the whole time she was doing it!”

“Now Jenny uses the Pacer with only the hip positioner saddle,” reports Denise Fruin-Venia, PTA.  “She used to require the chest prompt, but she has progressed.”

Not only are the OT’s involved in teaching the Ortho class, but the PT’s are as well.  Five MOVE-trained therapists work with Sue Van Camp.  “I couldn’t do this without the whole team here, the occupational therapists and the physical therapists.  As the classroom teacher, I provide the tasks.  Then we take it from there!  We all divide up and help different students each time they come over.”

The students’ tasks are posted on a picture chart.  The student goes to the chart to see what his or her task for that day is. The therapists proceed to help them, yet allow the students to problem solve.  Students will be doing activities that they’ve never done, and the therapists assist, yet “stand back,” so students are doing it on their own.  It gives the students a great deal of pride to accomplish their task from start to finish. 

Michael has ataxic cerebral palsy and requires a lot of stability for success.  For example, to drink out of a glass, he has to hold his hand steady; in everything he does, he needs a firm base of support.  When Michael is in a Pacer, he can bus a table: this activity is strengthening his core muscles in a different way than when he’s sitting in a chair.  “If a dish falls on the floor, you pick it up, and have more practice while reaching for it.  He gets a kick out of doing his task, because everybody else is doing it,” says Georgia Stachura, OTR.   “Even though he may not accomplish half of his task very successfully, the fact that he is challenging different muscles for strengthening is very important and helpful.”

Last year, students were walking out to “the house”, and then they’d get back into their wheelchairs for the class.  This year, with the team working together, students walk out to “the house,” stay in their Pacers, and do the activities.  “Working together as a team advances the program,” says Johnna Gray, PTA.  “It’s really helped the kids.”

“One thing I know,” says Michele Lemanski, OT.  “I need the PT’s there.  I’ll say – this is what we want to do, and then they figure out how I adjust and adapt the equipment so the student is more successful at a task I have them working on.”

“We need the OT’s there,” says Denise Fruin-Venia, PTA.  “We use their expertise in knowing how to accomplish tasks with the upper extremities for activities of daily living.”

“We all come together,” says Johnna Gray, PTA.  “How are the students sitting the best they can, how are they standing the best they can, to perform the function that they’re working on.  We all concentrate on what they’re doing.”

And the students get very excited when doing their activities.  “Then we get excited,” says Sue Van Camp.  “We’re just a whole bunch of excited people!  I’ve never known a student to say, ‘I love to do laundry,’ and beg to do it!  That’s Michael.  Students take a lot of pride when we’ve worked together to accomplish a task, even if it’s just putting a few groceries away.”

The practice in class has begun to be carried over to home for some students.  They are helping fold clothes and do other chores.  Jenny came to class thrilled one morning:  She was able to stand at the counter at home to brush her teeth.

“For us, it’s not just about using the Pacers,” says Johnna Gray, PTA.  “Students also transfer into regular classroom chairs.  And they don’t just sit in a chair to sit in a chair.  They sit in a chair to perform a task.  That’s the big thing about MOVE:  Getting there is important, but it’s about what you’re going to do when you get there.”

Linda Bidabe, the founder of MOVE, and Dave Schreuder, MOVE’s Executive Director, visited Woodland Developmental Center, a MOVE Model Site.  They were thrilled to see MOVE’s goals being accomplished:  participation in real-life activities of daily life.  To see the pride of achievement and huge smiles on the students faces was more than enough, but then to watch them walking in their Pacers, back and forth across the kitchen numerous times, completely focused on their tasks, was, in Dave’s words, “an incredible sight.”

The thrill is contagious.  Students who have never really done anything for themselves, suddenly show motivation and drive in accomplishing tasks that they would normally be doing at their ages.  “They’re taking a lot of pride in seeing each other as well, and it just kind of fills the room,” says Michele Lemanski, OT.  “It fills the whole place, how excited they are.  And then we get excited, and it just bounces off of each other.”

The team is working out how to do even more, and the staff is constantly exploring.  Every time the class meets is a new learning experience.  “We all just continue to learn, the students and the staff,” says Jen Thiede, OTR. “One student said this class is the absolute highlight of his week.”

 To visit Woodland MOVE Model Site, contact:

Woodland Developmental Center (Port Huron area)
499 Range Road, PO Box 1500
Marysville, MI 48040
Contact-Dennis O'Connor, Principal
(810) 364-8990

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