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News Release

Office of News and Information
Johns Hopkins University
901 South Bond Street, Suite 540
Baltimore, Maryland 21231
Phone: 443-287-9960 | Fax: 443-287-9920

May 22, 2006
CONTACT: Phil Sneiderman

Students Design Custom Computer Desks
for Woman with Disabilities

Mechanical Engineering Undergrads Make it Easier for
Instructor to Continue Working

Three Johns Hopkins University undergraduates have designed two custom computer desks and delivered them to a health care educator who has disabilities, helping her to continue to work from home. The desks will allow Joy Goldberger, who lives in Baltimore County, to lead seminars and workshops and to write professionally with greater ease and flexibility.

One of the new desks provides handier access to paper files and computer equipment when Goldberger 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.

Goldberger has a progressive neurodegenerative disease that has led to diminished strength, coordination and stamina, requiring her to use a wheelchair or crutches and to spend extended time in a semi-reclined position. She continues, however, to train health care workers to assist parents of children with life-threatening illnesses. "Most of what I do involves working at a computer," Goldberger said. "I've been trying to continue working with as little physical effort as possible."

Last year, she sought help when her efforts to work on a computer positioned beside her bed became more awkward and challenging. Goldberger was referred to Baltimore-based Volunteers for Medical Engineering. She asked the group if it could provide a new computer desk that would make it easier for her to work from home. VME referred the project to students in the two-semester Engineering Design Project course, offered by the Department of Mechanical Engineering at Johns Hopkins.

The project was assigned to 22-year-old senior mechanical engineering majors Boyang Li of Jericho, N.Y.; Olivia Mao of Natick, Mass.; and Eiline Yoon of Los Angeles. The three, who had earlier worked together as study partners, were pleased to be teamed for this project.

Boyang Li, Olivia Mao,
Eiline Yoon
Photo A: Johns Hopkins mechanical engineering majors Olivia Mao, Boyang Li and Eiline Yoon designed two custom computer desks to help a woman with disabilities to continue to work at home.
Photo by Will Kirk

To begin, the students visited Goldberger's home to evaluate her needs and study its layout. The team concluded that the best solution would be two desks: one stationary model beside their 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 said they were pleased with the 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?" Goldberger said after trying out the carousel. "My life is better already."

desks for disabled
Photo B: The students recently delivered these two desks to their client. The wooden stationary model will make it easier for the woman to work in her bedroom. The rolling metal cart will allow her to work on a laptop in other parts of her home.
Photo by Will Kirk

The smaller, movable cart, made of aluminum and plastic, is equipped with a laptop computer resting on a turntable, allowing Goldberger to swivel her screen to display a slide to her students. This rolling desk has handles on the side so she can use it as a walker. Goldberger also can push the cart across the room while seated in her electric wheelchair.

"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 Joy 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.

Video footage and digital photos of the students and the desks available; contact Phil Sneiderman.

Related Links
Johns Hopkins Department of Mechanical Engineering
Volunteers for Medical Engineering

Additional Images
arrow Follow this link to more images of the custom computer desks and the students who designed them.
arrow Follow this link to a short video about this project.

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