Service Project: Mechanical Furniture

Freshmen Hans and Hunter, tools out

Even in the midst of a global pandemic, the Providence Engineering Academy follows a particular philosophy that transcends circumstances. While many robotics clubs and engineering programs might teach physics, maker skills, CAD, and more, we believe that these elements—fascinating as they may be—are only the means to an end. In the latest application form for the coming year, there are six “big ideas” listed; Big Idea Number 1 is that service matters:

As Christians, we have an obligation to turn our skills outward to the world around us; we learn not for our own sakes.

While we may not be allowed to mix cohorts or share equipment, the seventeen dedicated upper school students are committed to loving their community using their math, physics, coding, CAD, robotics, and maker skills.

Early on in the school year, we found two willing partners in this process: one was Mr. Gil Addison of PathPoint, an organization serving at-home and on-site residents, many of whom use a wheelchair each day due to their limited mobility. The other was Mrs. Christa Jones, 4th Grade teacher in the Providence Lower School. Both of these clients had distinct requests for custom-made furniture and it was the perfect opportunity for our students to put their new-found statics knowledge to the test (statics is the study of physically balanced situations where the net force is zero, such as buildings and bridges).

Mrs. Christa Jones, 4th Grade Providence Teacher

Mr. Gil Addison, PathPoint

Mr. Addison wanted a custom-made desk for an iMac computer that could be set to a lower height for a wheelchair occupant, and then back up to a standing desk height for an ambulatory user. Such a desk is hard to find in the current marketplace, and the engineering students saw an opportunity to provide something uniquely useful. The desk would be mechanically driven by a remote control, safe for an individual with limited dexterity, and functional to hold the computer at any height without concern.

By contrast, Mrs. Jones needed a new teaching desk at the front of her room to help meet the new style of a COVID year. This mobile desk would need to be equally useful in a standing or sitting position, for maximum versatility with her in-person and at-home students.

How to meet the needs of these clients in a year when the Engineering Academy is functioning in an independent-learning mode? How could we hold a meaningful design charrette when mixing between cohorts is prohibited? How can seventeen students come up with an agreed-upon detailed design and communicate it with the clients?

Answer: with creativity, technological tools, and a great attitude!

The students began by watching pre-recorded videos from the clients as they described their requests and necessary constraints to Mr. Meadth, the Academy Director. Mr. Meadth offered up some quick sketches and ideas in the videos to help sort through what would and wouldn’t work.

Early notes for Christa Jones’ project

Early notes for Gil Addison’s project

The students then used LEGO and other construction materials to make quick miniature mock-ups of their ideas, along with sketches to help show functionality. The images were sent to the clients to help them think through the possible solutions at hand. Another round of recorded video reviews with the clients, and then the real design work began!

Alan’s rolling cart concept

Kaitlyn’s desk concept with extendable platforms

Together with Mr. Meadth, the students worked together over Zoom and in their grade level cohorts, using the cloud-based CAD tools from Onshape. With each student taking ownership of several parts from the whole, they worked collaboratively to produce something that could be presented back to client as a visualization and to the fabricator as dimensioned drawings. Teleios in 9th Grade can create the top part of the desk, Angel in 10th Grade can make the support struts, and Nolan in 12th Grade can design the platform for the keyboard. All team members can see how the pieces fit together in advance, spotting potential problems before a single cut is made. This kind of ease, speed, and confidence in the design process simply did not exist even five years ago, and we are glad for it!

(The computer desk for Mr. Addison can be viewed live here, and the rolling cabinet for Mrs. Jones here. Both models are interactive.)

Mrs. Jones’ rolling cart CAD model

Mr. Addison’s adjustable computer desk CAD model

So where are we today? After purchasing the plywood, oak, mechanical actuators, caster wheels, and other bits and pieces, fabrication is underway. The clients are now eagerly awaiting the delivery of their prototypes. Gil Addison’s computer desk is nearly complete at the time of this article, and Zach in 11th Grade has put together a beautiful biscuit-joined red oak desk surface for Mrs. Jones’ rolling cabinet.

James assembles the clamping mechanism for Gil’s design

Teleios and Abby show off the parallel linkages

Nolan with the mechanical actuator

The vision nears reality for PathPoint!

Zach’s red oak table surface (3 ft long)

We’ll update this blog site as the projects are completed and delivered. For now, we’re just glad to be able to continue our exciting mission through a pandemic and out the other side. The exhortation in I Peter Chapter 4 seems particularly apt:

Each of you should use whatever gift you have received to serve others, as faithful stewards of God’s grace in its various forms. If anyone speaks, they should do so as one who speaks the very words of God. If anyone serves, they should do so with the strength God provides, so that in all things God may be praised through Jesus Christ.

Keep on serving with the strength God provides, engineering students! You’re making us all very proud. 

630 E Canon Perdido St, Santa Barbara, CA 93103, USA

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