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Technology gives Fargo Lions' vision tests eye-popping speed

Sue Anderson, of the Fargo Lions, uses a machine to check the vision of a student at Ed Clapp Elementary School Monday, Oct. 19, 2015, in Fargo. Dave Wallis / The Forum1 / 4
Sue Anderson, of the Fargo Lions, uses a machine to check the vision of a student at Ed Clapp Elementary School Monday, Oct. 19, 2015, in Fargo. Dave Wallis / The Forum2 / 4
Sue Anderson, of the Fargo Lions, uses a machine to check the vision of a student at Ed Clapp Elementary School Monday, Oct. 19, 2015, in Fargo. Dave Wallis / The Forum3 / 4
Mel Olson, of the Fargo Lions, uses a machine to check the vision of a student at Ed Clapp Elementary School Monday, Oct. 19, 2015, in Fargo. Dave Wallis / The Forum4 / 4

FARGO – Kindergartners were on their best behavior Monday at Ed Clapp Elementary School, lining up to sit in a chair and stare, wide-eyed, at the man holding a gray plastic case with an orange-banded "lens" with a smiling face molded in the center.

"You're up young lady," Mel Olson said.

Holding up the camera-like device with a two-handed grip, he told the girl to "look right there at the funny face."

On his side of the Plus Optix 12, Olson, a member of the Fargo Lions Club, stared at a screen the size of a small iPad to get a detailed photo of the child's eyes. The machine made a few arcade game-like beeps and squeals and the eye test was over.

"See, I took a picture of your eyes," Olson said, showing the girl the black and white image, before sending her on to get a sticker.

In just a handful of seconds, the girl was screened for farsightedness, nearsightedness, astigmatism and anisometropia (a lack of balance between each eye's ability to refract light).

"We can go through 20 or 30, bam, bam, bam," Olson said.

Mel Olson, of the Fargo Lions, uses a machine to check the vision of a student. Dave Wallis / The Forum

Olson has used the $7,800 machines — there are 13 in North Dakota — for a year. About 153 children were to be tested at Ed Clapp. Even allowing for re-checking some children, Olson figured it would take less than two hours.

The state's Lions clubs want to check the vision of all 47,000 children ages 6 months to 6 years in North Dakota, Olson said. Eight to 10 percent of the children checked will show up as having a vision problem, and their parents will be referred to eye care professionals. He said vision problems are easier to correct if caught early.

Olson said the Fargo Lions Club members have focused on day care centers, but they also did testing at Jefferson and Madison elementary schools before stopping at Ed Clapp.

Lions volunteer Brian Shawn was impressed by the speed of the eye screeners.

"This really tells you a lot of information in a fraction of the time" of older tests, Shawn said.

Bonnie Schmitz is a long-term substitute teacher helping out at Ed Clapp. She's been teaching for 40 years and said identifying children with poor eyesight makes a big difference.

"If they can't see the formation of the letters and the numbers, it really throws them off," she said.

Principal Jennifer Schuldheisz said the screenings are crucial because younger children often can't articulate that they're having trouble seeing.

Helmut Schmidt

Helmut Schmidt was born in Germany, but grew up in the Twin Cities area, graduating from Park High School of Cottage Grove. After serving a tour in the U.S. Army, he attended the University of St. Thomas in St Paul, Minn., graduating in 1984 with a degree in journalism. He then worked at the Albert Lea (Minn.) Tribune and served as managing editor there for three years. He joined The Forum in October 1989, working as a copy editor until 2000. Since then, he has worked as a reporter on several beats, including education, Fargo city government, business and military affairs. He is currently The Forum's K-12 education reporter.

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