Engineering A Very Special Project

For 25 years, University of Tulsa (TU) engineering students have completed their senior project by working with children with special needs, designing and building every day products in a way that is easy for them to use. This year, students designed and built a small portable kitchen to offer a variety of tactile and auditory experiences for children with developmental challenges, allowing them to participate in mixing, chopping, slicing and dicing. The senior design project was part of the university’s Make a Difference Engineering (MADE at TU) program — a way to combine classroom projects and community service.


The TU engineering students worked with staff from the Little Light House, which provides educational and therapeutic services free of charge to children with special needs, to identify areas of need that meets both the desires of the organization and the needs of those children.


It was in the 1980s that University of Tulsa mechanical engineering students began using their talents to address the special needs of northeast Oklahoma residents with physical and  developmental disabilities. As the projects attracted more attention, the TU’s College of Engineering and Natural Sciences started receiving donations for the initiative.

The college’s dean at the time, Steve Bellovich, expressed a deep and sincere interest in supporting the engineering students’ efforts and offered them financial support from his own college budget. In the early 1990s, the venture officially was branded the Make a Difference Engineering (MADE at TU) initiative to improve the lives of disabled Tulsans through the design and development of mobility aids and other adaptive devices. MADE at TU’s social service aspect is a direct reflection of one of the university’s core values – commitment to humanity – and is valuable to TU students and faculty. A true student-run organization, MADE at TU not only helps students develop comprehensive technical skills, but also allows them to gain the experience of client interaction.

Bellovich, one of the TU’s most loved deans, passed away in early 2012, but his legacy lives on in the Make a Difference Engineering Endowment Fund, established in his memory. Founded with an initial $250,000 investment, the fund’s earnings support MADE at TU by paying for materials and other expenses associated with the program.

Students from all departments in the College of Engineering and Natural Sciences are invited to participate. In addition to general MADE at TU projects for members of the Tulsa community, all
mechanical engineering seniors are required to complete a senior design prototype. These seniors often choose to build projects in support of the MADE at TU program.


MADE at TU’s goals are broad – to use the engineering talents of students to make life better for people with disabilities. John Henshaw, Harry H. Rogers Professor of Engineering and Chair of
the Department of Mechanical Engineering, is the MADE at TU faculty adviser. According to Henshaw, devices for people with disabilities have always made for good engineering projects for students. He explained, “The big difference with designing and building one of these projects is that it’s not very cost effective, so it’s the perfect student project. The biggest cost for projects like these is engineering time, and on a college campus you don’t pay the student engineers.”

Students meet with clients on a regular basis – they must, to make sure the project is a success. “The solutions of many engineering challenges are often reduced to a set of equations and with MADE at TU projects there’s a little bit of that, but most of the things we’re trying to accomplish are difficult to do with equations,” said Henshaw. “You can’t skip the personal feedback of your clients. The cooking center students built a prototype and took it to Little Light House for a trial run. There, they learned a lot of things to implement into the second one they built. Feedback from clients is a crucial part of the process.”

“We worked very closely with the Little Light House. Two of our team members (Joe Meier and Khristen Thornburg) met with some of the therapists at the Little Light House every other week to give them an update, ask questions, and get ideas from them,” related Cooking Center team leader David Gogolakis (BS ’15) who earned his mechanical engineering undergraduate degree in May. “Additionally, I had the privilege of volunteering in one of the classrooms, getting to interact with the kids, and even participating in several cooking sessions prior to delivering the Mobile Cooking Center. I have also been able to continue volunteering once a week after the Mobile Cooking Center was delivered, and it has been wonderful to see the kids having so much fun cooking with the kitchen.”

Cooking Center team member Joe Meier (BS ’15), who earned his mechanical engineering undergraduate degree in May said, “I met with the therapists every other week and I will say they were incredibly valuable to making this project a success. Without their insight, our team may have  built something that functioned, but it likely would not have been useful and fun for the kids at the Little Light House.”


“Most project assignments the TU students receive come through solicitations,” Henshaw said. “Little Light House first reached out to us for help with a project, and we’ve always had a strong connection with Anne McCoy.” (Occupational therapist at Little Light House and wife of Jerry McCoy, TU applied associate professor of physics)

Molly Smith, the Little Light House director of development, described her organization as a tuition-free Christian developmental center for preschool aged children with special needs. They strive to provide hope for families of children with special needs and improve their quality of life by providing individualized special education and therapy services to these children and training to their families and communities. Of the TU engineering students work, she revealed that “TU students are opening up opportunities for our children that were never available to them before. Being able to drive, cook, and play independently are things that we could not have given them without this technology, and we can’t thank TU enough for what they have done to open up the world for our children.”

“We at The Little Light House love The University of Tulsa engineering departments and MADE at TU!” said Anne McCoy, occupational therapist at the Little Light House. “These programs allow us to “dream big” for our students with special needs. As therapists and teachers, we regularly dream up creative ideas to help our children. Unfortunately, the manpower and the funds necessary to make these creative ideas a reality are often limited. That is where TU steps in. In the fall of each year, we present our ideas to a bright, community-minded group of senior students. These students take our project ideas, add their design training and fabricate a high-quality, unique product. TU also funds the project through monies set aside for this purpose!

“Throughout the semester, The Little Light House therapists and teachers meet with the TU students to discuss progress, problems and modifications for the projects. A number of the TU students have chosen to volunteer at The Little Light House so they can better understand our children and their needs. Wow! Many of these engineering students are from all over the world. Through working on the projects with the children, they learn first-hand how much a child with special needs can grow and develop. As they return to their own countries, they go with changed paradigms regarding the great potential and worth of people with special needs!”



“The Mechanical Engineering students have listened to our needs of making all their projects accessible to all of our children,” said Dede Flatley, physical therapist at the Little Light House. “They have made sure through height adjustments, visual adaptations, use of switches to activate different aspects of the projects and the use of upper and lower mobility. They have provided projects that help the children with different aspects of their development by providing a fun activity that will not seem to be ‘work’ to them. Other areas that the engineering projects have helped are sensory as well as visual tracking.”

“I’d say the best part of this entire project was delivering the final prototype to the Little Light House,” said engineering student Meier. “Seeing the kids play with all the devices and the smiles on their faces made all of the work entirely worth it!”

For Gogolakis, “Working with the children and therapists at the Little Light House was fantastic. All of the staff at the Little Light House were so helpful and enthusiastic about the Mobile Cooking Center. They provided us with inspiration and great ideas for devices and features to include on the kitchen, and we got to take those ideas and turn it into a physical piece of hardware. This really helped us a lot, as we know about the engineering side things, but don’t know much about the kids, while the teachers and therapists know about the different needs of the kids and the activities that would benefit them. The kids are amazing. Having the opportunity to volunteer and interact with them weekly has been wonderful. “ Erica Brown, mother of Reece, a purple class student is grateful for all the work done by the TU graduates: “We are so thankful to TU for their partnership with the Little Light House. They’ve provided a great way for kids that may not be able to be traditionally involved in a task to participate through technology. I got to see Reece make pancakes with his class, which is something he probably never would have done without the help of TU.”•


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