The Early Intervention and Mechanical Engineering project at Tennessee Tech University provides creatively engineered products to children with special needs and their families while offering "real-world" design experience to engineering students.
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Chattanooga native Ashley Jaeger and her team designed a work desk, mouthpiece holder and mouse stand to enable a woman with limited mobility to operate a computer with a mouthpiece, using only slight neck movements.
With her original setup, the woman couldn't use her keyboard's shift or control keys and move the joystick-style mouse at the same time. Her mouthpiece holder was unstable and uncomfortably high, and her workspace had to be carefully reset whenever her table was moved.
The group of four students built a new table that raises and lowers easily and is supported by jack stands and powered by gas shocks.
At Tennessee Tech University, some students learn about engineering while giving back to the community.
As part of the junior-level Dynamics of Machinery course, engineering students modify common, everyday items to give more independence to special-needs children and young adults in the upper Cumberland region.
Students are placed in the role of practicing engineer with the job of designing, developing, building and delivering an assistive technology device, said Stephen Canfield, a professor of mechanical engineering who guides students on the projects.
The main objective, he said, "is to provide a meaningful, guided engineering experience for the students." But he also hopes the projects will "help students better understand the positive impacts they can have on society throughout their engineering careers."
For the past decade, about 300 engineering students at the Cookeville, Tenn., school have participated in the Early Intervention and Mechanical Engineering project, which has benefited more than 100 children with special needs.
George Gulas, 21, has known since he was a child that he wanted to become an engineer -- he was inspired by his grandfather, he said. But until he took the machinery course, he wasn't as aware of the contributions engineers can make to a community.
Right now, for instance, Gulas and his team are working on a feeding device for a young man who has limited mobility.
"To give him independence is really what we wanted, so he could feed himself without the help of others," said the Chattanooga native.
The group met with the man, his therapist and his family to find exactly what he liked, what he didn't, what his hobbies were, anything that could help them find out what he needed.
"One of the main things is to make him comfortable," Gulas said.
Students get little class time to work on their projects; most of it is done on their own time. And Gulas estimates that he has put "40, 50 plus" hours into the project.
But he doesn't mind the time, he said.
"It's exciting to get to build something yourself, something you create, and actually see it come to life."
The project started about 12 years ago, targeting kids from birth to age 3, Canfield said. Since then, it has expanded to include all school-age children and youth.
The program is funded with a $32,000 annual grant from the special education division of the Tennessee Department of Education and donations, Canfield said.
"The support goes a long way," he said. "It's quite amazing what the students can do in problem-solving."
Gulas said students are usually limited in what they can do because they still are learning and have limited funding, but they still have a lot to offer.
"We don't have hundreds of thousands of dollars but we have great ideas and willpower," he said.
Pat Poston's granddaughter, Ivy Linder, is one of the latest beneficiaries.
The 14-year-old middle school student is blind, has right-hand weakness and seizures, among other problems, Poston said, which makes it difficult for her to exercise.
A group of Tennessee Tech students modified a stationary bike that Ivy nicknamed "Clyde" and uses every morning.
"This bike is great. It shows miles per hour, calories burned and distance," said Poston.
It also has redesigned pedals to support her ankles and an adjustable seat so she can get off and on easily.
Ivy usually listens to Taylor Swift and gospel music while riding the bike, but the music only plays if she pedals at a continuous speed.