BOZEMAN - Todd, 57, loves strategy games like checkers, Connect Four and Italian lawn bowling. The faster he can fly down a mountain on his sit-down skis the better.
Todd also loves working independently, but it's a challenge for the Reach client who is missing his right arm and sometimes has tremors in his left. When Todd bags metal washers at the Bozeman workshop for people with disabilities, he often relies on an aide to help him. Mardie McGregor usually hands the washers to Todd, then opens a small plastic bag and holds it while he drop the washers into it.
Reaching a goal
To help Todd reach his goal of working without assistance, three Montana State University students met him earlier this fall as part of IME 413, a senior-level course for industrial engineering majors. The students watched Todd work, then came up with ways to help him work by himself. They developed one of those ideas into a device they thought Todd could use and Reach could afford to duplicate. They showed it to Todd in December.
“What do you think, Todd? Will this work for you?” asked Nick Kintzler from Bozeman.
Kintzler, Chris Hergett from Billings, and Cory Wolosyn of Kansas City, Kan., turned an ink pen into a magnetic pen by removing the ink cartridge and replacing the tip with a magnet they had filed to fit. They also built a wooden stand that used a dowel and clamp to hold a funnel in place.
The students designed their device so Todd could place and open a small plastic bag below the funnel. Then he would pick up the pen. With one click, he'd push out the magnet so it would pick up washers laying on the table in front of him. With another click, he'd pull the magnet back inside the pen so the washers would fall into the funnel. The funnel would guide the washers into the plastic bag. He'd remove the bag and set it aside for someone else to seal shut.
Todd's tremors were acting up, so it took a little time for him to pick up the washers with the pen. The funnel was a little too far away, too, so he didn't always center the plastic bags under it.
The problem was easily solved, however, by pushing the device closer to Todd. Suddenly, everything clicked. Todd was able to work alone and soon filled 20 bags.
“Perfect,” McGregor exclaimed.
“This day is as good as it gets,” Kintzler said.
“We will be giving this to you,” Wolosyn told Todd. “Do you think you will use it?”
A week later, the students presented their project to their classmates and asked Todd to demonstrate their product. Sitting at a table in the back of an MSU classroom, Todd placed a bag beneath the funnel. Once again, he completed the process flawlessly. The students applauded.
“Awesome,” said instructor Laura Stanley.
Kintzler, Wolosyn and Hergett were among 11 students who took Stanley's “Ergonomics and Human Factors Engineering I” course this fall. For the second year in a row, the class incorporated service learning by working with Reach, a Gallatin Valley organization devoted to empowering adults with disabilities. One way Reach fosters independence and helps its clients gain more control over their lives is by offering them a variety of jobs that fit their abilities. Some of the clients work in businesses around Bozeman. Many of the clients — currently ranging in age from 21 to 78 — work at the Reach workshop north of Bozeman, filling contracts with local manufacturers. Todd, for one, was bagging washers for Dynojet. In last year's project with MSU students, he built truss rods for Gibson Guitar.
Pride in the job
Rob Tallon, executive director of Reach, said independence is important to Reach clients because they, like anyone else who works, take pride in their jobs, the money they earn and the ability to work independently.
“It's a self-esteem issue,” Tallon said. “Our culture values people based on the work that they do, and our clients are aware of that.”
MSU students who took Stanley's class this year were divided into four groups at the beginning of the fall semester. Each group was then matched with a Reach client.
Unlike clients the students might have for other engineering projects, all of these clients are developmentally delayed. All four have physical disabilities involving a hand or arm.
Stanley said engineers can go through their entire career without designing products for people with disabilities. IME 413 reminds students that “Not everybody looks like you or acts like you.” She added that the class teaches students how to fit their designs to the person.
“This isn't just a report. This is a chance for you to change somebody's life,” Stanley told them. “You actually get to help somebody.”
Many of the MSU students said they hadn't worked with people with disabilities before taking IME 413. Some had, including Britni Alsberg who taught swimming to the disabled in Glasgow. Whatever their level of experience, the students said the course was both valuable and challenging.
“We had to let go of our original concept and design and focus on the needs of the client,” said Samantha Severin of Helena.
“Conception is easier than implementation,” added Mark Eggensperger of Thompson Falls.
Alsberg, Severin and Eggensperger made up the team that worked with David, a sociable client whose artwork is featured on the 2010 Christmas card from Reach. After starting out with one design to help David bag parts more efficiently, the students switched to a simpler design they called the “97-cent solution.” It consisted of a funnel they had bought for 97 cents. By turning it upside down, David could pull a plastic bag over the tip. He could then turn it right-side up and easily drop two small parts into the bag.
“Good job,” Alsberg said after David finished filling 10 bags on his own.
Stanley published a paper about the service learning project and presented it in October at the ASEE/IEEE Frontiers in Education Conference in Washington, D.C.
“Engineering is a field that provides an ideal proving ground for integrating service-learning into the curriculum because of the emphasis on experiential education, problem solving skills and working in teams,” she wrote with co-authors Lenore Page and Carolyn Plumb. Page was the teaching assistant for the course. Plumb is director of educational innovation and strategic projects in MSU's College of Engineering.
Reach employees who worked with MSU both years praised the students for their participation, attitudes and inventions. Contract Development Supervisor Kathy Pittinger, who obtains contracts with local businesses and breaks down their jobs into doable tasks, said she values the students' unique perspectives on how to help the clients carry out their jobs. In some cases, the clients want to work more efficiently so they can earn more money by working faster. In other cases, the big goal is working independently.
Todd's aide said, “It never ceases to amaze me how wonderful those students are. They always seem like they really want to be here and really want to help.”
Tallon said the MSU students came up with several ideas that Reach can use.
“We've gotten a benefit out of it, and I think the students benefit, too,” he said of the collaboration. “It's been a real nice connection.”