First-Year Students Get Jump on Engineering Design

Thursday, September 01, 2016
Freshmen In Studio Design1

Successful Steps: Freshmen Vicky Randel and Danny Allanson work together to develop one of the "Star Wars"-themed laser devices for the "Operation"-type game developed as part of the late summer engineering design program.

Before taking their first college classes, eight first-year Rose-Hulman students have already made a difference for Wabash Valley teenagers and young adults with special needs through a new program that's introducing elementary design principles and communication skills.

During a summer pilot project for a proposed design studio-based program, students started their freshman year early with a course where the assignment was to redesign three toys for youth with disabilities. The toys will be used in therapy sessions and made available through a library of take-home activities for clients of Terre Haute's Reach Services Inc., an agency serving approximately 1,700 people with disabilities annually. The lending library is used by nearly 650 people a year. Toys are especially in high demand, according to Suzy Thompson, the agency's executive director.

In the interdisciplinary, team-based pilot course, the students' creative ideas addressed their young clients' language and fine- and gross-motor skills, while also facilitating social/emotional self-confidence and personal independence through the redesigned toys.

A backpack adapted by Vikram Molakala and William McEvoy uses the popularity of the "Star Wars" movie character Yoda to give clients a variety of physical exercises to improve range of motion and motor skills. The students equipped the backpack with a programmable Bluetooth technology audio system that allows a therapist, parent, or caregiver to give vocal commands-in Yoda's voice-to encourage clients to move two light sabers throughout a therapy session.

"We wanted to make it an enjoyable educational self-help experience for people of all ages and skill levels, while giving a therapist the freedom to help others in need, says Molakala. "Providing vocal commands using Bluetooth technology was a breakthrough that enhances the system."

"Star Wars" also was the theme used by Danny Allanson, Vicky Randel, and Colleen Wagoner to modify the popular children's game "Operation." A magnet at the end of a light saber device, crafted from crutch handles (with Velcro straps), allows for game pieces (depicting ships and characters from the movie) to be extracted from imbedded locations throughout the game board. A second saber with weaker magnets will test players who master the first game phase. Then, tweezers can be used by advanced players. Audio commands featuring a Yoda-like voice congratulate players for each game piece extracted.

"We had so much fun with this project-so much that we didn't want to give it up at the end," says Wagoner. "Having the skills to help others is important."

Randel adds, "This project definitely put me in the engineering mindset and deepened my desire to become an engineer."

Freshmen In Studio Design2

Tech Talk: Freshman mechanical engineering student Luke Burke works finding ways to put all of the electronic circuits into a custom-made joystick box that will have drivers steering the miniature remote-controlled miniature car (left, on table) around a series of race track courses.

Finally, Luke Burke, Veronica Roberts, and Gabe Severyn created a remote-controlled miniature car that uses a single joystick to navigate across a straight track to knock down bowling pins (for simple-stage drivers), a large circle race course (for moderate players), and a figure-8 track (for advanced players). The joystick control box, with three alternate handles to match the client's motor-use abilities, was specially designed and fabricated through 3-D printing technology. Safety guardrails help keep the car on track and a floor mat material makes for easy roll-up storage.

"The creativity, as freshmen, shown by these students is just fantastic," says Reach Services' Thompson. "Our clients are going to have so much fun with these new projects. The best part of it all, each project was created especially for us. This isn't something that we or the parents of our clients could get off the shelf at a store. I can't wait to see what these students develop throughout the rest of their college careers. They're definitely off to a great start."

The new, late-summer Integrated Design & Communication Program allowed incoming freshmen to learn elements of engineering design, work in teams on a hands-on project, and explore their interests in engineering. The five-week course, developed in connection with the institute's participation in the Kern Entrepreneurial Education Network, featured integrated learning and studio-style team teaching. Some of the course credit came from instruction in rhetoric and composition, and graphical communication. Faculty leading the classes were mechanical engineering professors Ashley Bernal and Jay McCormack and English professor Anne Watt.

Other educational aspects of the course featured field trips to General Electric's FirstBuild breakthrough microfactory in Louisville, completing a writing project after spending a day job-shadowing student interns at Rose-Hulman Ventures, and working with an external client (Reach Services) for the first time.