He chalks it up to his Catholic upbringing. David Chesney can't help but shoehorn some good into unexpected places. "I've always tried to build social context into the courses I teach," said the University of Michigan computer science and engineering instructor.
So his section of ENGIN 100, a required course for Michigan Engineering freshmen, is "Gaming for the Greater Good." Through this class and a more advanced, senior-level software engineering version, students have developed games and other apps designed to help people with special needs. So far, they've focused on cerebral palsy and autism.
The story of how these courses came to take their current shape begins about seven years ago when Chesney toured a special needs classroom in his school district. There, he saw the technology set-up for a quadriplegic child who had been injured in a car accident as a toddler.
"The device they had set up for him was a camera on top of his PC, and they'd put a metallic dot on his head that would move the cursor," Chesney said. "That's the main way he'd interface with his computer."
Chesney was struck. He remembers thinking, "If anyone deserves to play a fantasy computer game, it's this kid." He lifted a Nintendo controller from a table in his office. "This is what today's gaming interface looks like. I can barely use it."
At the time of his tour, students in Gaming for the Greater Good were writing a lot of math and physics tutoring programs. He hadn't yet geared the assignments toward kids with special needs. The tour had touched a nerve, but he wouldn't figure out how to do anything about it for a few more years.
"Sometimes you have to get poked a couple times before you realize things are changing," Chesney said.
That second poke came from Joe Kryza, the executive director of infrastructure & system operations at the U-M Health System. After the charity Mott Golf Classic worked with Dell, Cisco and Microsoft to donate laptops for patient rooms in 2002, Kryza's office got a lot of requests to unlock the machines. Rehabilitation engineers were trying to customize them for patients with severe disabilities. Kryza started looking into customized technologies and he learned that many of them—a system that could help a patient with cerebral palsy to type, for example—were often prohibitively expensive.
"There's got to be a way to make this cheaper," Kryza remembers thinking. Eventually he reached out to Computer Science and Engineering for ideas. A meeting was scheduled.
"To be honest, it was a meeting I almost blew off," Chesney said. "I'm not a big proponent of meetings."
This one changed the course of his courses.