The University Record, April 10, 2000

Student engineering projects turn ideas into reality

By Jill Siegelbaum
News and Information Services

Senior engineering students Craig Williams (center) and Melinda Ball (right) demonstrate the operation of the Height Garden, a project designed for the Jewish Community Center. The center requested a raised garden design that would allow older adults to care for plants without stooping or kneeling. The garden is supported by a hydraulic lift and has removable planters. Phyllis Herzig (left), from the Jewish Community Center, was on hand to cheer on the team through the competition. Photo by Rebecca A. Doyle
In August 1998, U-M student Steve Laux was injured in a diving accident and paralyzed from the neck down. Extensive rehabilitation enabled his return to school in only one semester, but life had changed forever for this biomedical engineering graduate student.

Among other difficulties, Laux had to rely on his roommate, mechanical engineering senior Fred Barrigar, to move in and out of his wheelchair. “I knew how much it meant for Steve to be independent,” said Barrigar. “It’s so important to him.” So Barrigar did what he says any friend would do—he tried to help.

Barrigar was enrolled in a mechanical engineering design course that includes the Program for Community Engagement in Engineering Design (ProCEED), which sends mechanical engineering students into the community to solve engineering problems.

With other students, Barrigar designed a lift that Laux could operate to move himself from his wheelchair to a couch, bed, chair or car seat and back again. “It was great to be able to help him,” said Barrigar. “It was an incredibly rewarding experience.”

In fact, according to Barrigar, this experience has caused a dramatic change in the friends’ future plans. “Instead of going off to work for an automotive company, Steve and I plan to start a business, making things more accessible, improving rehabilitation—basically helping other people.”

ProCEED originally began in Pi Tau Sigma, the co-ed engineering fraternity. “The engineering department was looking for ways to introduce community service into the curriculum, and we came along with this program at just the right time,” said Dan Gress, engineering graduate student and member of Pi Tau Sigma.

The engineering department discovered the need for community outreach through Engineering Service Day, says William Schultz, associate professor of mechanical engineering and applied mechanics. “Engineering students were serving the community by painting houses, cleaning parks. These are noble causes, but we thought the community could benefit from the specific skills engineers provide, and that the students could learn more working within the community.” ProCEED became a part of the mechanical engineering course 450, where groups of students work on projects for outside corporations, communities and the University.

Although the course is taught by faculty, ProCEED itself is largely student-run. “Pi Tau Sigma does a lot of the work,” notes Diane Brei, assistant professor of mechanical engineering and applied mechanics. “Our role is primarily advisory.”

Engineering society members search the community for potential projects. “One of our bigger problems is that most people don’t know what engineers do,” says Michael Farina, engineering graduate student and Pi Tau Sigma member. “We had one organization that thought we drove trains.

“Basically, if you’re doing the same difficult chore every day, and you think ‘Why can’t someone think of a better way to do this,’ well, maybe we can,” said Farina.

Along with the lift, students have created devices to “motorize” manual wheelchairs—a low-cost alternative to purchasing new wheelchairs—and designed a removable ramp to make buildings more accessible. Currently, the students are designing a variable-height garden for the Jewish Community Center that adjusts to different levels for both children and senior citizens to use. Future students will design an indoor ropes course for a local Girl Scout troop.

“Actually, we receive a lot of proposals which are more appropriate for other engineering departments, such as electrical, computer, even some that would be good for architecture students,” said Brei. “It’s working so well for us, we’re trying to expand ProCEED into other departments, schools and colleges.”

As for Barrigar and Laux, they are staunch supporters of ProCEED. “I learned so much more from working to help an actual person. I got the maximum technical experience, and I got a better idea of how engineers can help people, not just companies,” said Barrigar. Laux, in the meantime, is working on incorporating ProCEED into the bioengineering program.