Cori Smith took North View Middle School eighth-grader Chou Chee Yang's hand, placed it on a bright acrylic rod protruding from the wall and began to count down from three.
After "one," she cheerily said, "pull," as Yang clasped the cylinder, yanked it out of its hole and tossed it over his shoulder.
"He really likes to throw them," said Smith, an occupational therapist for secondary students in the Osseo Area Schools district.
Yang, who uses a wheelchair, is nonverbal and has been working on his fine motor skills. He also has been learning how to gauge distance and getting lessons in functional communication through the special education department at North View. When he returned to school after MEA weekend, Smith had a new tool for his lessons: an enormous Lite Brite-style board mounted on the wall in the special education classroom — built by other students.
The board is 6 feet wide and 4 feet tall. A series of string lights runs behind a piece of plywood drilled with some 1,400 holes. The light filters through the acrylic cylinders, brightening their already brilliant hues. Mounted about 3 feet from the floor, the board is low enough for students in wheelchairs but high enough for others to reach.
While it has been a feature of the special education classroom only for a few weeks, Smith said the board has been a boon for students. She'll sometimes arrange the rods in patterns that she'll then ask a pupil to replicate. Or Smith can create shapes or letters and ask one of her middle schoolers if they can identify them.
"We're still playing around and discovering things right now," Smith said. "But you can see how much they love to explore."
She got the idea for the board last spring when the Osseo district's special education team visited the Brooklyn Park branch of the Hennepin County Library. She saw something similar behind the help desk during the departmentwide outing.
J.R. Genett, services deputy director for county libraries, said the board was installed in 2016 and is popular with families, in part, because it helps kids develop their fine motor skills.
"It's also a great way for caregivers and children to spend time together, strengthening family bonds," Genett said.
The library had its board custom-made by the company Kidzibits, which does not provide pricing on its website. But a 32-inch square board sold by the company LiteZilla retails for $5,000. Smith found larger models for more than $10,000, way outside the Osseo district's budget.
So she plugged "DIY Lite Brite" into YouTube and sent a few of the clips to John Jacobson, North View's Gateway Tech teacher. The career and technical education program that he runs is a traditional shop class that incorporates technology in many of its lessons.
Jacobson already had many of the materials he'd need to make the board. Smith secured a grant from the local Lions Club and did a bit of other fundraising to pay for the lights and acrylic rods. The North View Middle School's board cost about $2,000 to make.
Jacobson built the frame, and students did the rest in his workshop, drilling holes into the plywood for much of the spring and fall.
Yang, the special ed student who uses the board, added the finishing touch: With Jacobson's help, he drilled the 1,404th hole.
"It's a really cool gift, from one group of students to another, that stays in the school," Jacobson said.