Classroom Standing Desk: Delivered!

 We’ve written on this blog about the completion, delivery, and feedback for PathPoint’s wheelchair computer desk, but what about the other project intended for Mrs. Jones? We’re glad to report that this project has now been constructed, assembled, and painted according to the student plans and delivered to a grateful 4th grade teacher!

Like all of our COVID-friendly projects this year, the design work was done by students: Alan, Davis, Eliana, Isaiah, Kaitlyn, Kassy, Sam, Zach, and Pedro. Their original concepts were submitted as sketches and miniature models back in October 2020.

Alan’s early LEGO concept (October 2020)

Mrs. Jones reviewed these concepts and filtered out the ones that were less suitable. The result of this, plus another online design charrette, was a series of simple sketches and a collaborative CAD model in Onshape, which can be accessed here.

The result of a design charrette in December 2020
The final collaborative CAD model emerges

Mr. Meadth acted as fabricator for this project, with Zach in 11th grade contributing a beautiful hand-finished red oak table surface. Angel, while not an actual member of this project, worked after school to attach caster wheels and paint according to Mrs. Jones’ requested color scheme.

The linear actuator motor, intended as a replacement for an
armchair recliner and capable of over 150 lb of force
The actuator is sandwiched between
two pieces of plywood
Zach’s table surface attached and
actuator extended
In retracted position

From the very beginning, these mechanical furniture designs needed to closely follow the advice given over two thousand years ago by the Roman architect, Vitruvius. Vitruvius was primarily concerned with buildings for home and public use, but his timeless principles seem to fit this project particularly well: firmitas, utilitas, venustas. Translated as “strength, utility, beauty”, this triad neatly underscores the challenges and requirements of Mrs. Jones’ desk.

Strength: Can a desk be put on wheels and still be stable and secure? How can you design a desk that changes its size and shape without risking damage to users and their property (like a laptop that slips off and smashes!)? When will a cantilever design be so audacious as to become a tipping hazard?

Utility: What features are necessary and useful for any teacher? How to incorporate a maximum amount of storage while allowing room for the electrical mechanism? What are the exact heights that Mrs. Jones requires for her sitting and standing? How much desk space is enough?

Beauty: How do you hide away the necessary mechanical equipment? What should be the focal point of this design to catch the eye? What color and trim will best fit a classroom and suit the client?

Carving out a shallow hole for the wooden handle
The wooden handle structure ready for installation
(note the dowels and holes)
A strap clamp to secure the handle while gluing

Angel attaches the caster wheels

The rubber stoppers are screwed into place after painting
With the door and shelving installed, this is ready for delivery!

In March 2021, after six months of work, it was finally time to deliver the finished product. With the help of Mr. Knoles, the Lower School Principal, Mr. Meadth surprised the entire class one morning with the desk delivery. Mrs. Jones was delighted to receive the desk, and promptly filled it with her hefty teacher editions—which definitely helped as a counterbalance to the cantilever design!

The crew proudly presents their product!
Mr. Meadth surprises Mrs. Jones with the
finished desk!
“So I just press here…?”
Loaded up and ready to go in 4th grade
This project shows us once again that engineers, mathematicians, scientists, and technologists are uniquely poised to love those around them. As we often discuss in the Providence Engineering Academy, it is only those with a particular type of training and set of skills who can turn good intentions into deliverable outcomes. To quote Christian philosopher Etienne Gilson, “piety is no substitute for technique.”

Thank you, Mrs. Jones for allowing us to partner with you in such an interesting project this year. It was an admirable test of the students’ skills as they sketched concepts, designed CAD models, collaborated interactively, calculated forces and moments, and put saw to wood. Well done to each student who contributed—you are accomplishing great things.

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. 

Collaboration with the Physical Education Department

(The fourth in our student blog series comes from Nolan in 11th Grade, and gives the final update on a project that was begun last year.)

Last year, the focus of the Advanced Engineering I group (juniors and seniors) of the Providence Engineering Academy was statics, or the branch of physics associated with objects at rest. As a way to explore this topic, the members of the Engineering Academy collaborated with the Providence Physical Education Department. Their goal was to create versatile wooden boxes that could function in many different ways: an obstacle course, a balance beam, or a step-up box, for example. In this way, the engineering students created a system that would not only benefit the P.E. program, but would also help them learn more about statics, since the structure would have to be able to withstand the use of the junior highers (not breaking or sliding on the grass when jumped on, while having multiple uses).

The first box shown in a virtual assembly

The second box shown translucent, interior strength wall visible

This first step of this project was to create paper models of the boxes, to see how everything would fit together. After Mr. Meadth, the director of the Engineering Academy, approved the designs, the team shifted to using an online program called Onshape. Onshape is a design tool used to create realistic models of objects. This CAD technique allowed the budding engineers to visualize their designs of the boxes further and make adjustments where needed. Once the “CADing” was complete, it was time to start producing and assembling the actual boxes.
Mr. Meadth checks the fit of the first two pieces of one box, as
students look on
The students wrestle with the heavy pieces, sliding them into place
Incorporating the “box joint” technique (resembling a three-dimensional puzzle, used for strength), the two large boxes were finally completed after lots of hard work from last year’s juniors and seniors. Each box comprised approximately nine pieces, weighed about 120 pounds, and had volumes of 80 and 48 cubic feet, respectively. Another fun touch added to these boxes was a grid of four inch squares cut into sides of the boxes, allowing them to be connected together with beams. These boxes are oddly shaped, one like a cube cut along the diagonal and the other like a cube with a rectangular chunk missing, which only adds to their versatility.
An almost completed box, missing two faces and the inner wall
Fast-forward three months: two
amazing boxes just as planned!
Since these boxes were created last year, they have had much use from the junior highers. Mr. Mitchell, the P.E. teacher, says that he is “very grateful that the Engineering Academy did this,” and that “these boxes really enhance the fitness pursuits and the program as a whole.” Judging by the frequency of use and Mr. Mitchell’s gratefulness, this project was a resounding success. Great work, Providence Engineering Academy!
A grateful Mr. Mitchell urges his students on as they create
innovative workout routines

Tension + Integrity = Tensegrity

The Providence Engineering Academy seeks every year to put skills to use for the benefit of the community. From designing playground equipment to running science lessons, “we have an obligation to turn our skills outward to the world around us; we learn not for our own sakes” (quoted from the Engineering Academy application).

This year, the Advanced Engineering I students took on a challenge from our very own fitness guru, Scott Mitchell. Mr. Mitchell, who teaches middle school P.E. and runs our outdoor education program, is passionate about his craft. He wants students to understand the human body, in terms of both structure and motion. Mr. Mitchell has long used tensegrity structures as an analogy to help students visualize these principles.

What’s a tensegrity structure, you ask? While a formal definition is somewhat elusive, you know it when you see it. Popularized by the architect Buckmister Fuller and his student, sculptor Kenneth Snelson, these structures feature “compression members floating in a sea of tension.” Still confused?

Here’s an animated GIF from Wikipedia’s page:

The engineering class began with some small models, using elastic bands for the tension elements and wooden dowels for the compression struts.

Victor with the most simple of all tensegrity structures: three sticks
not touching
Victor and Todd with a six-member icosahedron
Josh finds a new use for the 12-stick version

As simple as these look, they take a great deal of effort to plan and assemble. But this was not the end goal; our class aimed to build a giant version of the icosahedron, with compression members 8 feet long!

Attempt 1:

A lot of knots tied to create 24 rope members. Attached lag bolts to 20 lb beams. Got it together and realized that everything was way too loose. Too much sag. Took it apart.

Alena carefully loops the non-slip knot over the bolt
Ben gets those bolts secured
Inital success and exuberance, but everything is far too loose

Attempt 2:

All rope connections shortened by 5 inches to tighten things up.  Unfortunate result: humanly impossible to pull together. Mr. Mitchell attempted to complete the final connections under great duress. Failure, bent bolts, and an abandoned attempt.

Attempt 3:

Straightened out bolts. Loosened all rope lengths by 2 inches. Realized that we can do this the easy way, working with the structure and not against it. Beams held in different orientation. Pulled it all together, but some bolts bent again. Much tighter, much easier, good result!

Colby and Todd compare the 8-foot version to the 12-inch!

Attempt 4:

Practice makes perfect! Rechecked all ropes, and found a few that were too long. Replaced all bolts with thicker ones twice as strong in bending. Worked in new orientation and got it together in under 10 minutes! (Compare this video to the last.)

Mr. Meadth tests it out before anyone else–in the name of safety,
of course!

Todd climbs inside once everything is approved

Eva’s turn!

In case it’s not clear from the pictures and videos alone, it has to be emphasized that none of the wooden beams you see are touching each other. Each of them is “floating in a sea of tension”, held in place by the 24 ropes. This is despite the fact that the entire structure weighs about 160 lb (73 kg).

Here’s another interesting observation: in the interest of safety, we strapped a force gauge to the ropes, and measured 150 lb of tension. (These ropes are rated up to 300 lb, so no problem!) But when Mr. Meadth climbed up on top, weighing about 155 lb himself, the rope tension only increased to 190 lb. How fascinating that 155 lb of live weight does not increase the rope tensions by that amount.

In fact, three people at one time were able to climb up on the structure (totalling more than 300 lb), but the max load reading never exceeded 250 lb, with no evidence of any structural problems.

It’s stable, folks! It beautifully and naturally distributes extra load all around to find equilibrium, much like the human body. Even as it moves, it naturally corrects, distorts, and stabilizes. Watch Todd roll a few feet in the following video.

Needless to say, Mr. Mitchell was delighted with the outcome, and brought his middle school P.E. students over to see, touch, and feel its dynamic responses. He taught them that the wooden beams are analagous to our bones, and the tensioned ropes are like our ligaments and tendons and muscles. Inspired by the work of Anatomy Trains, it’s easy to see what happens when our bodies are injured or out of alignment.

Great work, students! Keep on dreaming, designing, calculating, and serving others! Please share this article freely with friends and family.

A good day’s work!

Wild West Town—Completed!

If you’ve visited the Providence Lower Campus in the last couple of weeks, you might have noticed an exciting new development in the Grove. Lo and behold, the Providence Engineering Academy has completed its children’s playground project—and just in time for the new year!


The completed project, in place at the Lower Campus Grove

For those who have been following along, you’ll notice that this project has moved through different stages through the year. Our original plan from the first day of school was to have the six Advanced Engineering I students design and build a children’s playground for the Grove. The students met with Mr. Knoles as the client, came up with a woodsy theme, wrote and received a grant from the local EnergyPartners Fund, learned about California safety standards, created a detailed CAD model, constructed a physical 1:16 model to put on display, and ran many structural calculations to inform their design. For more details of where we got to, check out this post from February.

After a couple of months, we realized that although the plans were solid, there were a lot more moving parts in the mix than could be resolved this year. Having already received our grant for materials and tools, and having a month of the school year still set aside for construction, we quickly changed tack. The students brainstormed along different lines: what could we design and build that would be small, fast, portable, safe, and a ton of fun?

Answer: the Wild West town!

In an amazing display of teamwork and ingenuity, the six students (Aaron, Tys, Sarah Jane, Kylie, Caleb, and senior Jake) quickly produced a set of plans to communicate the idea to our client and provide useful tools for estimating, purchasing, and construction.

Front view: restaurant, shop, house

The town would be built in two sections, each 12 feet long, about 5 feet high, and 4 feet deep. Six distinct rooms would be included: a restaurant, a general store, a residential home, a train station, a sheriff’s office, and a jail.

Perspective: train station, sheriff, jail (CAD model unfinished)

With approval from the Lower School, the students set to work. Bethany Bodenhamer, one of our industrious Lower School parents, negotiated with Home Depot and coordinated the deliveries of tools and lumber. Marty Robertson graciously allowed us the use of his miter saw for the entire duration of the construction. Peter Bohlinger also loaned many high quality tools used throughout the construction.

And so the work began! The backyard of the Upper Campus was converted to a scene of enthusiastic creativity. The six students, with their varying levels of experience, quickly grew in their confidence in measuring, cutting, and attaching the lumber—and always with safety eyewear, of course!


The play structure develops over the course of several weeks

When school let out in June, the students had made a terrific start on the structural framing, and some of the siding. Who knew that trigonometry had practical application?!

From left to right: Tys, Jake, Aaron, Kylie, and Caleb

In this image, the CAD model has been added as an overlay
to help visualize the final product

Clockwise from top: Aaron, Kylie, Sarah Jane, Tys, and Caleb
show off their craftsmanship

The restaurant nears completion (left); the framing for the railway
station, sheriff, and jail is practically complete

The reverse angle view in the backyard

Once summer came, others pitched in to help. Visiting alumnus and founding member of the Providence Engineering Academy Gabe Clark worked alongside Jake and Tys; Mr. Hurt brought his wife (great with child) and parents; Mr. Meadth’s son Asher even lent a hand!

Tys (in the window), Jake (middle) and Gabe helped secure the
roof and siding for the general store

Five Hurts across three generations! This family means business

Dad got them started, and Asher finished them off

A good deal of work was also done on adding finishing touches—it’s the little things that count!


A double-swinging door for the restaurant, just to give that classic
kickin’-in-the-door outlaw feel

A sink and counter adds the homely touch

Solid steel bars divide the sheriff from his catch of the day

The ticket counter for the railway station sports wrought-iron
decorative work

In case there was any mistaking which one was the sheriff’s office!

Finally, five strong friends of the school helped Mr. Meadth load the four separate pieces and transport them to the Lower Campus—one 500 lb piece at a time. After a bit of practice, the complete round trip was timed at 40 minutes! Of course, Ms. Svoboda was on hand to document the experience.


Ready—lift! Is that one of our new 7th Graders?

We certainly turned heads driving down State Street!

A place for everything and everything in its place!

A final word of thanks goes out to two parties. The EnergyPartners Fund generously provided what was necessary to go out and do this. They have been loyal supports of our program for several years now, and we are indebted to them. And naturally, well done to the six young engineers who envisioned this, designed it, and sweated it out. Mack Fixler at MOXI and his high-powered laser cutter have ensured that their place of honor will stand for time immemorial.

Thanks, EnergyPartners Fund!

Six strangely familiar villains, immortalized through the
magic of lamination and synchronized photons

Who knows what the coming year will bring? Don’t forget to subscribe to this blog, and we’ll let you know! And go explore the Wild West town next time you’re there; you won’t be disappointed.

Til next time!