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The newspaper of The Johns Hopkins University May 15, 2006 | Vol. 35 No. 34
Undergrads Design Custom Computer Desks for Disabled Woman

To help a disabled woman work at home, Olivia Mao, Boyang Li and Eiline Yoo designed a stationary computer desk for her bedside and a rolling cart that can be moved easily around the house or outdoors. Handles allow her to push the cart.

Mechanical engineering students help instructor to continue working

By Phil Sneiderman

Three Johns Hopkins undergraduates have designed and delivered two custom computer desks to a health care educator who has disabilities, helping her to continue to work from home. The desks will allow the woman, who lives in Baltimore County, to assemble lessons and educate health care workers with greater ease and flexibility.

One of the new desks provides handier access to paper files and computer equipment when the woman works from her bed. The second desk, a rolling metal cart equipped with a laptop computer, allows her to work in other parts of her home, including outdoors on her patio. The students linked their client's two new computers with a wireless communication system that allows her to access data on either unit without cumbersome cable connections.

The woman has a progressive neurodegenerative disease that has weakened her muscles and requires her to use a wheelchair or crutches. She continues to train health care workers to assist parents of children with life-threatening illnesses.

Last year, she sought help when her efforts to work on a computer positioned beside her bed became more awkward and challenging. She asked Baltimore-based Volunteers for Medical Engineering to provide a new computer desk that would make it easier for her to work from home, where she also trains her health care students. The VME referred the project to students in the two-semester Engineering Design Project course, offered by the Whiting School's Department of Mechanical Engineering.

The project was assigned to senior mechanical engineering majors Boyang Li, of Jericho, N.Y.; Olivia Mao, of Natick, Mass.; and Eiline Yoon, of Los Angeles. The three had earlier worked together as study partners and were pleased to be teamed for this project.

To begin, the students visited their client's home to evaluate her needs and study its layout. The team concluded that the best solution would be two desks: one stationary model set up beside the client's bed and a second, movable cart that would allow her to work in other rooms and on the patio. The team members completed the design and construction work over the past school year and delivered the desks and computers earlier this month. All three say they were pleased with outcome of their assignment.

"I think this project was really fulfilling for all of us because we were actually working for someone, as opposed to working for a company," Mao said.

"I see more of a sense of accomplishment because we could actually deliver these to her and see the smile on her face," Li added.

"I feel like we were actually using the talents that we have and the skills that we've learned to make a gift for a person in need," Yoon said. "I think that's really important."

In completing the real-world engineering assignment, the students faced several challenges. They were told to complete the project within a budget that would not exceed $10,000. Initially, the students considered installing complex electronic devices and motors on the desks. But ultimately, they concluded that these high-cost, high-maintenance components were not really needed.

The students also thought they could adapt ready-to-assemble desks from a retail furniture store. But after determining that such desks were not sturdy enough, the students used computer software to design their own low-tech furniture that could be put together and operated with simple mechanical parts. After buying lumber, hardware and other supplies, the students built and stained the wood bedside desk. For the metal cart, the team sent detailed measurements to a supplier, who assembled the unit according to their design. The final cost for the desks and the new computer equipment totaled about $5,000, well within the team's budget.

The stationary desk, made of stained birch, has room for a desktop computer and printer. To put plenty of storage space within easy reach of their client, the students designed and assembled a large six-sided desktop carousel made of transparent acrylic panels. Their client was particularly pleased by this feature. "Do you know how much I love this?" she said after trying out the carousel. "My life is better already."

The smaller, movable cart, made of aluminum and plastic, is equipped with a laptop computer resting on a turntable, allowing the woman to swivel her screen to display a slide to her students. This rolling desk has handles on the side so the client can use it as a walker. She also can push the cart across the room while seated in her electric wheelchair. To secure it in one location, the cart has wheel locks that the woman can operate with her crutches.

"I think the students did a wonderful job," said John Staehlin, president of Volunteers for Medical Engineering, the project's sponsor. "They worked really closely with [the client] and solved the engineering problems."

Producing the custom computer desks was one of nine Johns Hopkins projects completed this year by undergraduates in the engineering design course. The class is taught by Andrew F. Conn, a Johns Hopkins graduate with more than 30 years of experience in public and private research and development. Each team of three or four students, usually working within budgets of up to $12,000, had to design a device, purchase or fabricate the parts and assemble the final product. Corporations, government agencies and nonprofit groups provided the assignments and funding. The course is traditionally a well-received, hands-on engineering experience for Johns Hopkins undergraduates.


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