Special education alum Parker Duwelius ’19 saw an opportunity to create an environment to help others develop deeper relationships with their peers while volunteering in a special needs classroom. This helped shape his outlook on life and led him to his passion for teaching and creating an inclusive learning environment. He put those to use and developed the Lumino Visual Timer to assist students in the classroom.
Those experiences, in addition to volunteering in his Teaching II class in high school, helped him realize his love for teaching and having an effect on young lives.
“I felt like I was making a difference in those students’ lives, even if it’s not on a big scale,” Duwelius said. “I was making an actual individual impact on people.”
Illinois State provided an environment to foster that mindset. Many of his high school teachers told him that if he wanted the best teacher education preparation and job possibilities, he needed to attend Illinois State University. After attending community college, he transferred to Illinois State into the special education, specialist in learning and behavior program. That was the move he needed to be challenged and think creatively about using technology in the classroom.
Technology in the classroom
As soon as he stepped into a classroom at Illinois State, Duwelius could feel similar passions from his professors.
“Dr. (Yojanna) Cuenca-Carlino, or Dr. C-squared as we called her, had a relentless energy that paired well with her relatable personality,” Duwelius said. “She always said, ‘Remember that you are there for the students first,’ and that really stuck with me.”
Duwelius started thinking outside the box for his pedagogy. During a class with Dr. Tara Kaczorowski, he began to understand how technology could enhance his students’ learning as she challenged him to try out a variety of new technologies in his lesson plans.
“Any time I introduced a new technology, Parker was always very engaged and always attempted to use it,” Kaczorowski said. “They were teaching to their peers so it was a safe environment to try new things and he was always adventurous.”
While studying in Studio Teach, he noticed a few 3D printers and quickly discovered that he could use the printers and the filament for free, and he soon incorporated a 3D printed model into his lesson plan.
That innovative and adventurous mindset and inspiration from his professors soon made a difference in wanting to develop the visual timer.
Duwelius had a nontraditional route to graduation and took a semester off to refocus and reorganize. During that time off, he worked at an autism day school as a paraprofessional in the suburbs of Chicago.
“My brother and I were both working at the autism day school and we noticed that the majority of the behavior issues were happening during transitions,” Duwelius said. “So we took a holistic approach about why this was happening and realized the students didn’t have a clear expectation of when the transition was going to happen.”
He and his brother started brainstorming a product to help with the transitions. Duwelius had the experience using the 3D printer at Illinois State and his brother liked DIY electronics. Together they developed Lumino Visual Timer, an individual timer that can be placed on a student’s desk that uses a series of lights to count down to transition times. Knowing that traditional timers are noisy, their timer is all visual and communicates in a way that learners of all ages and abilities can understand.
During that semester off, Duwelius dove into product development. He bought a 3D printer, and together with his brother, tested many prototypes. Duwelius got involved in the entrepreneurial community in Naperville, took a basic business course, and developed the business plan.
In spring 2019, he did his field-based teaching in Plainfield. This placement allowed him to remain at home, stay connected with the autism day school, and continue to work with his brother on Lumino. When his final semester of student teaching started last fall, they had the product refined, the business plan completed, a crowdfunding campaign underway, and a drive to take the product to the next level.
Winning the Startup Showcase
By chance, Duwelius read an Illinois State student email newsletter that announced the Startup Showcase, sponsored by the George R. and Martha Means Center for Entrepreneurial Studies at Illinois State.
“I was already preparing a pitch and was deeply invested in building this business, so I figured, ‘why not?’” said Duwelius.
The Shark Tank-style event is an intense competition with a judging panel consisting of local business owners and entrepreneurs. The first round involved each of the 15 contestants giving their three-minute initial pitch, a poster display for investors, and dinner with local entrepreneurs. Each contestant had to return on the second day to learn who was still in the running for the top five spots.
The second set of pitches was in front of a large audience including many business owners, business classes, and interested community members. The five finalists were announced one at a time and each gave their larger pitch as soon as their name was called. Duwelius sat through four names and four speeches before he finally heard his name called as the last finalist.
Once he heard his name announced, he had about 10 seconds to process the excitement and nervousness before he had to get on stage for his final pitch.
He knew his speech well and came prepared with his prototype and business pamphlets in hand for each of the judges. After the first sentence of his speech, he was in the zone and excited to be talking about the product that he was so passionate about. Then the judging panel had 10 minutes for questions.
“They were softball pitches where I could really turn them into a good answer and clearly explain my business idea,” said Duwelius. “I was totally ready for those questions.”
Then the waiting and nerves began again. Every time he heard someone else get picked, he knew he had a better chance at the grand prize as the lower-level prizes were announced first. Finally, he heard the second place name announced and knew that he had won the top prize of $6,000 to put toward business development.
It was a culminating moment that helped validate his business idea and solidify that he was in the right field. Duwelius has a passion for helping provide access to education for individuals of all abilities. He came to Illinois State to pursue a teaching degree but left with so much more—excitement and knowledge for educational technology, confidence that he can persevere no matter the circumstance, and a first-place finish in the Startup Showcase.
Duwelius graduated in December 2019 and is currently working at the autism day school and building his business with his brother. The prize money allowed them to put together a workshop and purchase additional 3D printers. They are working on launching their product to the marketplace soon.
“It feels good to connect that knowledge that I have as an educator to developing a helpful product for students,” said Duwelius. “Illinois State made me feel prepared and confident going into my first teaching job and sparked my passion for using technology creatively in the classroom.”