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children with disabilities

MADE at TU 2021: A trike, a slide, surfin’ tubes and more!

Despite the challenges of this very strange pandemic year, students involved in The University of Tulsa’s Make a Difference Engineering (MADE at TU) program once again rose to the challenge and designed an array of mobility and adaptive devices for children with disabilities. 

Ever since MADE at TU began in the 1970s, students – especially those who have a family member or relative with a disability — have been drawn to its service component. “Over the years, the organization has attracted many great students who want to apply their talents to these projects that help those with special needs,” said John Henshaw, chair of the Department of Mechanical Engineering. “They use MADE at TU as a stepping stone for their future endeavors, which makes me feel great.” 

MADE at TU meets every Friday as a class and as an organization, usually with around 50 students in the class. A typical project takes two to three semesters to complete (sometimes longer), depending on the complexity of the project and the number of team members. There are no tests and no homework, but members are expected to work on and complete their projects. In this story, we shine a light on seven of the projects brought to fruition in 2021. 

Music Makes Smiles 

two young women wearing face masks standing behind a colorful glockenspiel-type musical instrumentMechanical engineering and music double major Anna Godinez was the team leader for Music Makes Smiles, a project delivered to The Little Light House. The other members were Katie Eugenio, Nathan Fahland, Riley McEnery, Jacob Sharp and Emily Wetzel. Taken together, they brought various engineering backgrounds and different musical talents to the design table.  

Godinez and her teammates’ MADE at TU project was a color-coded glockenspiel-inspired musical instrument. The instrument has notes that span a C-major scale with the aluminum keys having been fabricated and tuned appropriately in TU’s machine shop.  

“In order to be considerate of different gross motor abilities, our instrument has three different ways of being played,” Godinez said. “The first is by pressing on the colorful plastic balls that are attached to mallets placed directly below each aluminum key. When pressed, a mallet moves upwards, striking its corresponding key and emitting a sound.” 

The second and third methods that Godinez and her team developed consisted of using velcro straps to attach a hand mallet onto the musician’s arm, wrist or hand. Once the mallet is attached, a musician can strike the keys from above. 

“Music Makes Smiles was made possible due to team members working overtime and weekends to get the project finished,” Godinez remarked. “This was especially challenging due to the COVID-19 precautions across the TU campus. However, our team was determined, and it was a success!”  

Sandbox Project 

Garrett Tredway and his MADE @ TU teammates — Hunter Albers, Danny Tapp, Josh Falbo, Jackson Habrock, Colin Krueger and Abel Reji — designed a multifunctional sandbox for the students at Kendall Whittier Elementary School. The sandbox was requested by the school’s Exceptional Student Services’ staff, whose purpose is to foster an inclusive environment for students with physical or developmental disabilities.  

two little children playing in a sandbox designed to look like a carTredway and his team’s goal was to create a space for students who struggle in social settings, such as recess, or need extra time away from the classroom. Additionally, the sandbox was designed with a ledge for students to sit on so they can play in the sandbox without being exposed to sand. The team designed the sandbox in the shape of a car and decorated it with Kendall Whittier School’s symbols and mantras.

“Our team consisted of members that had several years of MADE at TU experience and had previously served at and done work with Kendall Whittier,” Tredway commented. “We were so blessed to have this opportunity, even after having to overcome the seemingly endless barriers posed by COVID-19, and we’re happy that our project will impact the lives of many children at the school.”  

Surfin’ Tubes 

a small, colorful slide for childrenKirsten Erickson and her team also delivered a project to Kendall Whittier Elementary School. Their invention is Surfin’ Tubes, which is a slide made with colorful rollers that serves as a multi-purpose classroom activity that helps stimulate children’s senses while also enabling them to have fun. Kirsten’s team included Jessica Dunway, Gloria Lee, George Legan, Taylor Montes and Jared Rohm. 

“Surfin’ Tubes was actually an older project that had been returned to TU for repairs years ago,” explained Erickson. “Our team replaced some of the rollers, added new UV-resistant colorful material to the rollers and designed and constructed a completely new staircase for the slide.”

The team delivered the slide in May 2021 to one of Kendall Whittier’s special education classrooms for students to enjoy. “Our team had the opportunity to see a few students test out the slide and they could not stop going up and down. It brought a big smile to all our faces to see the success of the project and the happiness it has brought to the classroom,” Erickson said. 

Drug Destruction 

a young person wearing a face mask and a black shirt holding a jug filled with foamy dark liquidSenior mechanical engineering major Jordan Johnson’s project – Drug Destruction — focused on the appropriate, efficient and cost-effective destruction and disposal of controlled substances. 

The client for this design was Dr. Michelle Lamb, a pharmaceutical specialist who reached out to MADE at TU after a previous MADE at TU project was developed for her child. Dr. Lamb recognized the absence of user-friendly and fully functional products on the market for drug destruction, and Jordan sought to assemble a product worthy of the pharmaceutical industry’s recognition. 

Johnson designed a solution comprising a 3D-printed integrated lid, a pre-purchased ergonomic and transparent container, a silicon epoxy-bonded utility funnel and an all-natural activated charcoal solution to deactivate the deposited drugs. “We initiated contact with 27 clients across Oklahoma and created a Google Survey to gain feedback on what we can do to improve,” Johnson noted. “Although this project is a little on the unconventional side for MADE at TU, Drug Destruction certainly has a promising future ahead.” 

Bikes for Moore 

Bikes for Moore, co-led by Myranda New and Julia Behlmann, works to make adaptable bikes for children with disabilities. The other members of the team, which has been together since fall 2019, are Jack Oxley and Evan Phillips. 

The Bikes for Moore team designed a tricycle for a little girl named Evelyn, who has POLG-related mitochondrial disease, which requires her to actively exercise and work to get the base amount of energy other people create without extra effort. For years, physical therapists told Evelyn’s parents that she would not be able to pedal a bike due to the advanced coordination and balance bike riding requires. Evelyn’s mother, Rosemary, reached out to John Henshaw to ask if one of the MADE at TU teams could design a tricycle specifically for Evelyn.  

a young child dressed in pink riding a pink tricycleNew, Behlmann, Oxley and Phillips spent an entire semester researching how to adapt a tricycle to suit Evelyn’s needs. A major focus of their investigation was the study of a linear pedaling mechanism that would require Evelyn simply to push the pedals to move the trike as opposed to rotating the pedals. Right as the COVID-19 pandemic began, the team had ordered parts for what they called the “guts” of Evelyn’s trike, but were met with the double obstacle of no longer having access to a lab space and being sent home by the university. 

“Because of how far the pandemic was pushing us behind schedule, we recentered the focus of our plan on customizing a trike by integrating the linear pedaling mechanism into it as opposed to constructing one from scratch, and this was the best idea we had yet,” New said. “We scoured several trike websites to find the perfect fit for Evelyn and catered to what we wanted to have for her custom piece, including a recumbent seat for balance and rear-wheel steering. What we found was the Mobo Mobito, and it was exactly what Evelyn needed.” 

Evelyn made a visit to TU to try the size of the trike and she was able to pedal the trike on her first try. “Once her balance was secured, she was able to focus on the coordination of her feet, and this trike frame allowed Evelyn to pedal rotationally. From there, we focused on making the trike more comfortable for her, which included adjusting the brake so it could more properly fit her hand, adding bricks and straps to the pedals to increase height and security, and adapting the aesthetic of the trike to Evelyn’s tastes” New recalled. With test runs every few weeks, the team was able to customize the trike to fit Evelyn perfectly.  

After many test runs and adjustments to the trike’s pedals, Bikes for Moore was able to deliver the finished product to Evelyn in April 2021. Evelyn’s mother continues to send the team updates about Evelyn and her trike, including pictures and videos.  

Walk the Walk 

a blue metal walker and a series of yellow rectangles arranged on the floorMax McElyea, president of MADE at TU, delivered her project, called Walk the Walk, to The Little Light House in spring 2021. When McElyea joined MADE at TU during her freshman year, she brought an idea for a project that was close to home for her. McElyea has a blind relative who struggled to learn how to walk, so her project reflected this challenge.  

Walk the Walk is a modular tile set and walker for visually impaired children that helps them learn how to walk. The tiles can be arranged in any order for different needs, including walking straight and practicing turns. The walker is made of polyvinyl chloride and has adjustable heights, while the tiles are medium density fiberboard that was machined on the Shop Bot at the Tulsa Fab Lab, a machine shop made accessible to the Tulsa community. 

Activity Boards 

Chris Montgomery was the team lead for the Activity Boards project. His team, which included Cody Barnes, Rofoldo Coronado, Sage Johnson, Zach Leavitt, Gage McCollum, Navin Singh and Kendall Yetter designed and manufactured two sensory activity boards for The Little Light House, which had approached MADE with an idea for sensory boards for their outdoor play area. Montgomery and his team were allowed to get as creative as possible to deliver the Little Light House something special. 

four young men wearing face masks and standing behind large activity boards for childrenThe first board was a single piece of a common plastic often seen in outdoor playgrounds. The team chose this material because they knew it was safe for children and could withstand the Oklahoma elements. They gave it an “under the sea” theme, with a ball drop that ends in a sunken pirate ship, a spinning pirate wheel, textured fish and a treasure map. The back of the board serves as a whiteboard that therapists can use for teaching or a variety of art activities. 

“Both boards were well-received and loved by the children,” Montgomery said. “All of the add-ons helped to stimulate their senses of sight, sound and touch. From an engineering standpoint, our project allowed us to get creative while teaching us a variety of safety considerations that we might not have otherwise considered. Additionally, it provided exposure to a variety of hands-on manufacturing that allowed us to further develop the skills we had learned both in lab and in the classroom.” 

The second board the team created was themed with various biomes: desert, jungle and Arctic. For this board, the team ditched the single sheet of plastic design and opted for three separate sheets that form a triangle upon assembly. This eliminated some of the tripping hazards the first board presented. The jungle board features a flower wheel that makes noise when spun, a croaking toad, a bamboo chime and many textured bugs, flowers and frogs. The Arctic board includes a snowman with a whiteboard for a face, a penguin that “hops” over the board and Northern Lights spinners. The desert board has four removable smaller boards with textured animals and various sliders that children in wheelchairs can easily interact with. 


MADE at TU is looking to expand its reach into other colleges and majors beyond engineering. “To the extent that other students get involved, it makes MADE at TU a better organization because different students think differently about different kinds of problems,” noted John Henshaw, chair of the Department of Mechanical Engineering. “I don’t care what your background is or if you’ve never held a screwdriver. If you’re a TU student and you want to help those with special needs, then you should join MADE.”  

For more information about MADE at TU and how to get involved, contact John Henshaw at john-henshaw@utulsa.edu.