TU Students Engineer for a Cause

Sep 28, 2012

Coming at the end of October, senior engineering students at the University of Tulsa will be picking out their final design projects.

A lot of the finished products of those projects end up at the Little Lighthouse, which, because of its special needs students, sometimes has its own special need of devices you won’t find in any store.

The TU-LLH Partnership

The outdoor areas at the Little Lighthouse, where Executive Director Jean Winfrey is giving a tour, for years have provided a safe place for many of Tulsa’s youngest special needs students to play and learn.

But for one University of Tulsa undergraduate, today, they constitute an engineering challenge.

“Is it just the sidewalk that you guys are hoping the Magic Carpet will be able to go over, or is it grass too?,” asks David Gogolakis, a TU mechanical engineering student.

He’s working on the second generation of a unique invention that was built by a now-graduated group of TU engineers.

It’s called the Magic Carpet, and it’s just one in a list of projects TU engineers have created for local organizations, through a program called Make a Difference Engineering—MADE at TU.

John Henshaw is a TU professor of mechanical engineering.

“Our goal is to give our engineering students the experience of using their knowledge to help those less fortunate than they are,” he explained.

For the students, usually seniors working on required capstone design projects, it begins early in the year.

“In October,” Henshaw said, “we have a night when we invite in anybody who would like to be a customer for one of our senior projects.”

The First Generation

A perennial customer is the Little Lighthouse. That’s how former TU engineering student Scott Peterson got involved.

During his senior year, he and a few colleagues designed the first Magic Carpet.

Peterson describes it as “a mobility aid, kind of a little robotic platform, that they can drive around themselves if they’re not independently mobile.”

It looks like fun—like some kind of simple robotic animal. A wide platform on wheels, it has a couple of different kinds of detachable controller mechanisms for students with varying levels of dexterity and comprehension.

Peterson recalled delivering the finished project to the students.

“We were here for a couple of hours, and they cycled five or 10 kids through there,” he said. “One of them just pressed the straight button, and we had people at each kind of corner … inside the playroom there, turning him corners, and he just went in laps forever and ever, with the biggest grin on his face.”

“There were two girls who drove around at the same time and started driving into things and people also, just giggling,” he continued.

“It was really incredibly rewarding when we were finally able to deliver it and see the joy on everybody’s face,” he said.

Passing a Torch

David Goglakis isn’t a senior—in fact, he just started his sophomore year at TU.

Wanting to keep busy in his field over the break, however, and build up experience for future internship applications, he spent this summer working on an update to Peterson’s group’s original design.

“I’m redesigning the basic frame; hopefully we’re going to make that out of plastic and make it lighter while still maintaining the strength,” he said, “and then larger wheels on the sides to make it more practical for outdoor use, and then some sort of a shock for the front and rear wheels, so there’s a little bit smoother ride and it’s not quite as bumpy.”

“I will tell you, we have really been blessed,” said Jean Winfrey, the Little Lighthouse’s execute director. “We have benefitted; I think it’s been a win-win situation. The students have been able to use their skills and gifts and talents to create something that benefits our children.”

Test Runs

By early July, University of Tulsa engineering student David Gogolakis is testing the device he’s been working on all summer.

Dede Flatley, a physical therapist at the Little Lighthouse, is here to see the test. Gogolakis provides an update.

“It’s going well. A little slower than we’d hoped, but projects usually do,” he said with a laugh. “Right now we’ve just made some changes to it of what we hope to improve on as we work toward making the second generation, to test it before we go ahead and spend all the money.”

The improvements he has made include adding a snazzy new set of wheels, replacing the old casters—wheels more like the ones on your office chair, that don’t do so well outside.

Now, Gogolakis says, it has something called omni-wheels,  “which is basically a wheel with smaller wheels on it, instead of treads, so it can go in any direction, and we replaced the casters with those, so it’ll be able to go outside as well on sidewalks and stuff.”

Part of the eventual goal is to allow the Magic Carpet to be operable on grass as well as concrete. For that the omni-wheels don’t work quite so well.

But Flatley says even these early changes make a big difference.

“So many of our kids, they spend so much time inside, they never get to go out,” she said. “This way they get some mobility then, they get to be out with their peers, all over the playgrounds.”

So, even though not all of the projected updates have been made, it’s time to test the new wheels, and the new battery that Gogolakis also added, with the kids.

Test Drives

One student, Daniel, is the first to test it out, both inside and outside. Several others take a turn throughout the morning, with students and adults alike showing their delight.

Anne McCoy, another Little Lighthouse therapist, is excited about using the Magic Carpet this school year.

“We see so many good opportunities to work with kids with this,” she said.

Many of the students can’t use their legs, and have been carried most of their lives.

“It would be kind of like riding your bike for the first time,” she said, laughing. “Maybe a few falls, but once they learn, it’s a great thing.”

This won’t be the last time the MADE at TU program designs for the Little Lighthouse.

McCoy gives one example of a project on the wish list: “devices to help them feed themselves because … a number of our kids can’t do that.”

That’s not to mention a grass and sidewalk capable Magic Carpet.

Fortunately, David Gogolakis has only just started his sophomore year and says he’ll continue to work on the design, well into his career at TU.