Update: Wheelchair Computer Desk Feedback

 Back in February, we posted a blog describing the completion and delivery of our wheelchair computer desk to PathPoint. After a few weeks, we were finally able to get Mr. Meadth and Mr. Gil Addison together with his team to go over the design and get that long-awaited feedback.

Feedback from the end user is critical to the entire design process. For this particular project, the Academy had all sorts of unanswered questions: will the design function as requested? Does the screen angle suit a typical wheelchair user? How convenient is the keyboard position? Is the mechanical motion safe enough for general usage? Would a typical PathPoint resident be able to operate the remote control? What improvements could be made? While we don’t currently plan on producing a Mk II, one project often leads into another and we improve our products by understanding their strengths and weaknesses.

Gil Addison (far right) together with his grateful staff

Mr. Meadth (center) joins in for the camera

Gil met Mr. Meadth together with six of the PathPoint staff members and together they went over the particulars of the design. You can watch the entire footage here, and a summary of design points is also included below.

As we draw this project to a close, thank you to PathPoint for being willing to work with us in an ongoing fashion! May our students always be inspired to use their God-given gifts with training and understanding, and we hope that the PathPoint residents are blessed through this simple gift.

Design Feedback

Screen Angle: Although the older iMac that was tested tended to slip on its hinge, once kept in place, the screen was easily able to tilt downwards to any wheelchair user at a suitable viewing angle.

Gil tests out the seated angle

Standing Height: The PathPoint ambulatory staff members found the maximum standing height to be comfortable and sturdy.

PathPoint staff test the standing height

Motor Function: Although the motor sounds like it is straining to raise the desk, and there is a slight but noticeable bending of the wooden attachment, the motor appears to be able to operate the desk satisfactorily.

Desk Size: The PathPoint team felt that the final desk size was a little smaller than they would have liked; although the keyboard and mouse did fit on it, there was not much room to move the mouse. Possible solutions: use a trackpad instead, attach a larger plywood sheet to that desk, or rebuild that component.

Operability: It is very easy for an ambulatory user to operate, although the small remote with small buttons may be difficult for some users. The desk adjustment at the front might be hard to operate, but it probably doesn’t need to be used often after being set in one position. Possible solutions: rebuild the remote with larger buttons that still trigger the same microswitches, build an app that uses the same remote frequency.

Other Improvements: The iMac base barely fit under the clamp; the wooden piece at the back that gets in the way could be chamfered down. The same wooden piece that flexes slightly could be doubled up. A spherical router bit could carve out a channel in the desk for the keyboard to fit into. The carriage bolts for the rear clamp could be longer to permit a thicker desk.

Wheelchair Computer Desk: Delivered!

 Following on from our last post, we’d like to provide an update: the custom computer desk for Gil Addison at PathPoint was recently delivered, bringing that particular project to a close. This desk raises up and down to any given height using an electrically driven linear actuator. The wheelchair user carries the remote control key fob, allowing complete adjustment from near or far. The desk is intentionally designed to tip the computer forwards to face down towards the user, as many wheelchairs seat the occupant in a reclined position.

You can play with the online CAD model here.

At the time of this writing, we are still waiting for feedback on the end result and photos of the desk in action. But in the meanwhile, enjoy some photos of the students as they put together the final product and examined the results. Thank you, Gil, for helping us execute such a meaningful project!

The final product assembled in the workshop, after some
final modifications. The actuator placement had to be changed
in order to create more torque to lift the table.

After disassembly, Nolan (senior) set to
work applying the protective oil to the
upper table surface

Abby (freshman) oils the lower base piece

After all pieces were oiled, Angel (sophomore) reassembled
the entire structure together with Mr. Meadth

A few more bolts to go–almost there!

The finished product as attached to a typical household
table, keyboard shown

The finished product in the full lowered position

Teleios, Hunter, and Abby (freshmen) get their first
look at the end result on the day of delivery

Joshua and Nolan (seniors) test out the remote control

The whole team from left to right: Hans, Abby, Hunter,
Teleios, Mr. Meadth, Angel, Joshua, and Nolan
(James was also in this group); note an iMac computer
attached as per intended use

Service Project: Mechanical Furniture

Freshmen Hans and Hunter, tools out

Even in the midst of a global pandemic, the Providence Engineering Academy follows a particular philosophy that transcends circumstances. While many robotics clubs and engineering programs might teach physics, maker skills, CAD, and more, we believe that these elements—”fascinating as they may be—are only the means to an end. In the latest application form for the coming year, there are six “big ideas” listed; Big Idea Number 1 is that service matters:

As Christians, we have an obligation to turn our skills outward to the world around us; we learn not for our own sakes.

While we may not be allowed to mix cohorts or share equipment, the seventeen dedicated upper school students are committed to loving their community using their math, physics, coding, CAD, robotics, and maker skills.

Early on in the school year, we found two willing partners in this process: one was Mr. Gil Addison of PathPoint, an organization serving at-home and on-site residents, many of whom use a wheelchair each day due to their limited mobility. The other was Mrs. Christa Jones, 4th Grade teacher in the Providence Lower School. Both of these clients had distinct requests for custom-made furniture and it was the perfect opportunity for our students to put their new-found statics knowledge to the test (statics is the study of physically balanced situations where the net force is zero, such as buildings and bridges).

Mrs. Christa Jones, 4th Grade Providence Teacher
Mr. Gil Addison, PathPoint

Mr. Addison wanted a custom-made desk for an iMac computer that could be set to a lower height for a wheelchair occupant, and then back up to a standing desk height for an ambulatory user. Such a desk is hard to find in the current marketplace, and the engineering students saw an opportunity to provide something uniquely useful. The desk would be mechanically driven by a remote control, safe for an individual with limited dexterity, and functional to hold the computer at any height without concern.

By contrast, Mrs. Jones needed a new teaching desk at the front of her room to help meet the new style of a COVID year. This mobile desk would need to be equally useful in a standing or sitting position, for maximum versatility with her in-person and at-home students.

How to meet the needs of these clients in a year when the Engineering Academy is functioning in an independent-learning mode? How could we hold a meaningful design charrette when mixing between cohorts is prohibited? How can seventeen students come up with an agreed-upon detailed design and communicate it with the clients?

Answer: with creativity, technological tools, and a great attitude!

The students began by watching pre-recorded videos from the clients as they described their requests and necessary constraints to Mr. Meadth, the Academy Director. Mr. Meadth offered up some quick sketches and ideas in the videos to help sort through what would and wouldn’t work.

Early notes for Christa Jones’ project
Early notes for Gil Addison’s project

The students then used LEGO and other construction materials to make quick miniature mock-ups of their ideas, along with sketches to help show functionality. The images were sent to the clients to help them think through the possible solutions at hand. Another round of recorded video reviews with the clients, and then the real design work began!

Alan’s rolling cart concept
Kaitlyn’s desk concept with extendable platforms

Together with Mr. Meadth, the students worked together over Zoom and in their grade level cohorts, using the cloud-based CAD tools from Onshape. With each student taking ownership of several parts from the whole, they worked collaboratively to produce something that could be presented back to client as a visualization and to the fabricator as dimensioned drawings. Teleios in 9th Grade can create the top part of the desk, Angel in 10th Grade can make the support struts, and Nolan in 12th Grade can design the platform for the keyboard. All team members can see how the pieces fit together in advance, spotting potential problems before a single cut is made. This kind of ease, speed, and confidence in the design process simply did not exist even five years ago, and we are glad for it!

(The computer desk for Mr. Addison can be viewed live here, and the rolling cabinet for Mrs. Jones here. Both models are interactive.)

Mrs. Jones’ rolling cart CAD model
Mr. Addison’s adjustable computer desk CAD model

So where are we today? After purchasing the plywood, oak, mechanical actuators, caster wheels, and other bits and pieces, fabrication is underway. The clients are now eagerly awaiting the delivery of their prototypes. Gil Addison’s computer desk is nearly complete at the time of this article, and Zach in 11th Grade has put together a beautiful biscuit-joined red oak desk surface for Mrs. Jones’ rolling cabinet.

James assembles the clamping mechanism for Gil’s design
Teleios and Abby show off the parallel linkages
Nolan with the mechanical actuator
The vision nears reality for PathPoint!
Zach’s red oak table surface (3 ft long)

We’ll update this blog site as the projects are completed and delivered. For now, we’re just glad to be able to continue our exciting mission through a pandemic and out the other side. The exhortation in I Peter Chapter 4 seems particularly apt:

Each of you should use whatever gift you have received to serve others, as faithful stewards of God’s grace in its various forms. If anyone speaks, they should do so as one who speaks the very words of God. If anyone serves, they should do so with the strength God provides, so that in all things God may be praised through Jesus Christ.

Keep on serving with the strength God provides, engineering students! You’re making us all very proud.

Physics, Freshmen, Furniture… and a Grant Win!

There hasn’t been a lot of action on this blog site so far this school year—but not because there aren’t things worth writing home about! As you can imagine, I (Mr. Meadth) have been much busier on the ground each day with cleaning and supervision, let alone teaching the engineering class.

But some things are worth documenting and celebrating. So let’s jump in!

1. Four New Freshmen

We took four new engineering students into the freshman class. A big welcome to Hunter, Abby, Teleios, and Eliana. These junior engineers are hitting the ground running, despite all the challenges. They are learning trigonometry before their time, taking baby steps into the world of computer-aided design (CAD), and just generally being awesome. Welcome, freshmen!

Hunter, Teleios, and Abby (Eliana couldn’t make this
photo, but she’s just as much a part of this group!)

2. College-Level Statics… From a Textbook

Despite my propensity to always design my own curriculum from the ground up, I tried something new this year: a textbook! It turns out this was the perfect year in which to do this, as it matched well to the statics studies that we’ve always done anyway. Don’t be led astray by the name—Statics for Dummies—the lighthearted tone helps high schoolers get through those pesky equations. For those engineering parents out there, you’ll find all of the fun you can handle in vector calculations, force couples, and free-body diagrams.

3. Independent Mode

This is a grand experiment, and one that we committed to from the start of the year. Can we commit to a full year of engineering studies in independent mode? Some would say that it’s never been tried, but this is the year to come up with new solutions! Despite the absence of stimulating classroom discussions, this has allowed students to take seven classes plus engineering, and it allows students to watch at their own pace. Students have watched 18 videos so far this year, and responded with written assignments and discussion boards. They are now eagerly discussing their community design project in a shared Google Doc, which brings us to Number 4…

Acceleration sums in three dimension, anyone?

If you can’t find the centroid of a composite area,
you just can’t call yourself an engineer

4. Community Design Project

I’m so happy with how this project is rolling forward! We have two “clients”, Mrs. Christa Jones on the San Roque campus and Mr. Gil Addison at PathPoint, who works with residents in wheelchairs. Our student teams are busily designing an adjustable standing desk for Mrs. Jones and an adjustable computer desk for Mr. Addison. Both of these designs are required to involve electrical/mechanical aspects, such as motorized lifts or built-in LED lighting. Once the student teams finalize their designs, complete with drawings and CAD models, I (Mr. Meadth) will be building their designs myself—in the interest of staying as contact-less as possible.

5. Lots of Publicity

We’ve received a surprising amount of national-level publicity lately. Our students use the CAD platform Onshape, and Onshape reached out to us to record a video and write a blog article. The video has been up for a over a month now, and the blog article will be published soon. Our Academy was also mentioned in another national publication by the American Institute of Aviation and Aeronautics (AIAA), Aerospace America, because we won a $500 grant to help build our remote-controlled aircraft.

6. Major Grant Win

Is it just me that believes in our outstanding Providence engineering program? Is it just the university lecturers who receive our already-highly-trained students? Am I just blowing my own horn over here? Apparently not! The Toshiba America Foundation decided that our second-semester robotics project was something worth funding, and we are pleased to announce that over $4,000 of the very latest in classroom robotics equipment will soon be arriving on campus. This will be put to use in our Mars Rover project, where different student teams will design, build, and code different components of one big vehicle. I’m looking forward to this one. Thanks, Toshiba!

One of the advanced Vex V5 sets: coming soon!

As always, stay posted for more exciting announcements. Our junior engineers are doing something very different, but making the most of it. I’m confident that their skills and experience will remain at the very highest level amongst similar programs in our area. Keep it up, students!

–Mr. Meadth

Design, Build, Fly!

Our students can’t be together in person right now, but nothing is going to stop them finishing the capstone design/build/fly project for the 2019-2020 year. With digital tools in their hands and computer-controlled manufacturing equipment at the other end, our budding engineers, now sheltered in place, are experiencing the reality of a modern workflow. Even before the advent of COVID-19, many companies routinely collaborated from around the globe, producing advanced designs using international teams. Although not our first choice of preference, we’re taking the challenge head-on!

Mr. Meadth teaching aircraft stability via Zoom
The first step for our skillful students was to learn the ins and outs of classic aerodynamics. In January, February, and March, the eight juniors and seniors studied airfoil behavior, lift and drag equations, and learned how to use weighted averages to find the center of gravity of a complex system. Our team learned the different parameters of airfoil design, and used virtual wind tunnel tests to predict just how those airfoils would respond in real life.
The virtual wind tunnel program XFoil: a classic
historical aerospace simulation! Note the cambered
airfoil shape at the bottom, with the yellow boundary
layer on top and the blue one below
Even more important was the notion of stability. What makes some physical systems stable, and others unstable? The incredible hexacopter drone that emerged in the first semester was inherently unstable, which means that it will rapidly flip and roll and fall out of the sky if the onboard computer-controlled gyroscopes were to stop doing their job. The gyroscopes sample the position and orientation of the drone dozens of times per second, and send minor corrections to the six motors, all without the pilot on the ground ever knowing it. Stable drone flight is an astounding human accomplishment, powered by calculus and implemented by technology, but it is not inherently physically stable.
On the other hand, the powered fixed-wing aircraft in this project must be physically stable. Tethered to a central post and flying continual circles, the aircraft will have only one remote-control channel controlling the power to the motor. There are no ailerons, elevators, rudder, or flaps. Without moveable control surfaces, the aircraft must be designed to constantly self-correct all by itself. If the nose dips down a little because of a gust of wind, it must automatically seek to find level again. If it rolls a little too much to one side, it needs to roll back again. The principles involved hold true for most common vehicles: cars, bicycles, even the caster wheels on supermarket carts.
Having mastered the physics involved, the students set about the difficult task of starting their design. No kits, no instructions, no fixed starting point! In teams of two, the students created a complicated spreadsheet filled with graphs and tables and physics equations, listing masses and locations and forces and moments. The students also designed a multi-part CAD model according to those numbers using the professional-grade online platform Onshape; ideally, the CAD model, the spreadsheet design, and the manufactured plane itself will end up as three matching representations of the same reality.
Pedro’s and Nolan’s aircraft in its complete form
The same aircraft in an exploded view
Mr. Meadth ordered in the necessary tools and materials for construction: carbon fiber bars and tubes, balsa wood, lithium-ion batteries, electronic speed controllers for the advanced motors, propellers, wheels, and filament for the 3D printer. These materials were fully paid for by a generous grant from AIAA, the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics. AIAA believes strongly in encouraging the work done by K-12 schools in advancing aerospace education, and Providence School has received similar grants in the past.
The delivery of the critical
components arrives!
Through the COVID-19 distance learning experience, the four teams produced their designs without ever meeting in person with each other or the teacher. Because of Zoom lessons, shared spreadsheets, and the powerful collaborative nature of Onshape, this project didn’t skip a beat. Mr. Meadth set up a manufacturing station in his own garage, and busily set to work producing what the students had designed. The CNC (computer numerical control) machine carved out flat balsawood ribs with exact length, thickness and camber dimensions, and the Raise3D 3D printer produced the three-dimensional components such as fuselages and tail.
The Providence Engineering Academy
manufacturing facility!
A completed wing rib from Ben and Todd, with
carbon fiber spar inserted
The vertical tail for Nolan’s and Pedro’s aircraft,
over nine hours in the making!
The huge 30-hour print of the fuselage/
wing box (lots of temporary support
material can still be seen

Ready for clean-up, delivery, and assembly! The
motor and one propeller option are in the background

Where to from here? The Advanced Engineering II students will receive deliveries of their manufactured pieces, to be assembled at home. Test flights, possible redesigns, and the final maiden voyages are scheduled to happen in late May—stay posted for the culmination of this exciting story!

A Tour of JPL


(This is the eighth in a series of blog articles written by the Providence Engineering Academy students. Pedro in 11th grade reflects on his experience at the Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadena on our class field trip earlier this year.)


“The trip was really inspiring way above expectations. I enjoyed the chance to see where they work, and the 2020 rover was a memory I will never forget.”

“It really re-awoke the third grade Nolan in me. The rover around Saturn replica was cool to see, it was a great experience, and I’m so glad I got the opportunity to go.”

These are the words Josh and Nolan stated about our class trip to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL). JPL was a fun and interesting experience, and in our tour we got to learn and see things that we’ve never seen before.

First off, we saw a video that was amazing to watch. This video showed us the gigantic size of the whole universe and taught us that most of it hasn’t been explored. It also showed some satellites and spacecraft that were launched into space, and we were able to look at smaller scaled models of these around the room.

Our host shows the various scale models of historical space probes

Next, we got to see the control room, which was full of screens and numbers. This is the room where they gather information from every spacecraft, rover, and satellite. It is also the place from which they controlled the landing of the Mars rover, Curiosity, in 2012—which we learned was a really terrifying seven minutes for these hard workers! 

The control center, from which every robotic space mission
has been monitored
Then, we got to see photos from one of the rovers on Mars. These photos had been taken just hours earlier and we got to see them on a screen!

After that, we got to see the construction of the 2020 Mars rover. Amazing! We learned that anyone that is eighteen or under can get their name applied on the 2020 rover.

The rover being constructed inside a “clean room”
Our final stop was the gift shop, which sold “space” ice cream, sweaters, and some cool toys for your kids. Overall, JPL was a fun and really cool experience for all of us.

Gliders: In Production!

A quick update on our Advanced Engineering II glider project: the students are currently hard at work translating their theoretical calculations into hand-made reality. The problem is at first daunting; how do you create the various parts of a flying machine, according to a specific design? There are dozens of materials that might be chosen for each component, and the production needs to be accurate enough and cheap enough and quick enough and repeatable enough!

Aaron lines his twenty ribs carefully
in place, ready to glue

All teams have settled on a 3D-printed rib-and-spar design for the wings, although the exact rib profile varies in size and shape. All teams are using carbon fiber square tubes for the spars (the long beams that run through from wing tip to wing tip). Some teams are planning on skinning their wing with cellophane, and others are planning on tissue paper and dope (a kind of glue that tightens and hardens the paper).

Kylie and Josh and Luke are producing
the largest, thickest ribs of all teams
(sounds delicious, in fact)

To see some interactive CAD models that Tys and Mikaela and Colby and Victor are working on, click here.

Other components, such as the undercarriage and fuselage and tail, are being made from 3D-printed parts, balsa sheets, more carbon fiber, and even colorful pipe cleaners.

Victor, Colby, and Mikaela go over the particulars of their CAD
model with Dr. Nathan Gates, retired aerospace engineer

Megan and Caleb receive valuable
advice from our classroom mentor

To help with the design process, we asked retired aerospace engineer Dr. Nathan Gates to visit our classroom. Dr. Gates moved around the different teams to consult with them. Each team explained their design, and received valuable feedback as to their construction plans. Dr. Gates’ area of expertise was structural mechanics; he was doubtlessly overqualified for this role!

Proud Providence alumna Willow looks over Gabe’s and Eva’s
wing design

To further sweeten the deal, we also asked Willow Brown, Providence alumna (2015), to come by on the same day. Willow’s sister, Kylie, is on a team with Luke and Josh. Willow is currently studying mechanical engineering at Loyola Marymount University. Did this give Kylie and her team an unfair advantage? Only time will tell.

The maiden voyage is fast approaching, so watch this space. There’s more coming up later this year, too—students will design, print, and build quadcopter drones. Stay posted, and thank you to Dr. Gates and Willow!

Field Trip: Santa Barbara Forge + Iron

Not far from our Upper Campus is an exciting center of creativity and design. With ties to Westmont College, Providence, and our own Mr Hurt, it’s the most natural place in the world to take our engineering students for inspiration…

Santa Barbara Forge + Iron!

Led by Dan and Andy Patterson, the people at Forge + Iron design, hammer, cut, and sculpt all manner of metal creations. You can see their work around town, most recently in the lighting fixtures at MOXI on Lower State Street.

Dan shows the ten students a piece of heavy machinery, designed
to cut through the thickest pieces of steel without blinking–no
touching allowed!

Over the din of hammers and ventilation fans, the students saw some fascinating works in progress. We found a good case study, too, where Dan had begun his designs in the CAD program SketchUp. While the students so far this year have been using a solid-based cloud CAD program called Onshape, they will be switching to SketchUp for the second semester. Creating the three-dimensional model up front allowed Dan to visualize the product, express his ideas to others, and spot potential challenges. Moreover, he was able to export particular decorative geometry from the design, and upload it to their plasma cutter to get just the right shape from the beginning.
The students look on as Dan moves the plasma cutter through its
three degrees of freedom

Computer models and computer-controlled cutting are then combined with the artistry and experience of the master; the team hammers and weathers the precision-cut piece to give it more character.
Students pass by as Andy gives attention to an iron archway,
destined for an existing window frame in Santa Barbara

The brothers’ passion for excellence in creativity came through loud and clear. Since our own students are wrapping up their Educational Design Project, where they meet with a client and work with them to develop a satisfactory 3D-printed product, the example of what this looks like in the professional world was well timed.
May we ever be inspired! Thanks to the brothers Patterson for their warm welcome, and to Mr. Rockney for coming along as an extra chaperone.