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STEM Students’ Computer Desk Project Puts Smile on Face of Local Wheelchair-bound Resident

picture of students and Ms. NelsonJonathan Hester, Petros Katsioloudis and Joshua McLin with Melody Nelson.

Students in Petros Katsioloudis' STEM 221 course, Materials Process, had a rewarding conclusion to spring semester classes with the culmination of their final project.

Their assignment: design and build an easily accessible computer desk for a wheelchair-bound woman with cerebral palsy.

Katsioloudis, who regularly challenges his Old Dominion STEM 221 and 231 courses with projects that address real-world problems - working in consultation with an Eastern Virginia Medical School physician, a group of his students last year built a device to measure the amount of smoke created by different surgical instruments - saw the computer desk task as a good learning opportunity for his students this semester.

An assistant professor of industrial technology in the Darden College of Education's Department of STEM Education and Professional Studies, Katsioloudis is also the director of the Industrial and Scientific Research Center, created last year in collaboration with the ODU Business Gateway to offer real-world industrial and scientific research opportunities for undergraduate and graduate students.

This year's class project was initiated by Joann Ervin, coordinator of the Virginia Assistive Technology System-Southeast, a federally funded grant housed at ODU. It was done in conjunction with the Virginia Department for Aging and Rehabilitative Services (DARS) to help Norfolk resident Melody Nelson, 51, who is a DARS client.

Once Katsioloudis' students - majors in mechanical engineering technology, industrial technology and technology education - heard about the request, they eagerly took up the challenge.

Nelson, who is legally blind and has very limited movement, has written 12 children's books, four of which have been published by Bookstand Publishing in California. The only way she can type is to hit the keys with a pencil inserted between the fingers on her right hand. Previously, she did her writing from a kneeling position on the floor. Due to her increasing age and health issues, however, it was no longer comfortable for her to sit on her knees for extended periods of time.

The desk the students designed, in consultation with Mike Anderson, rehabilitation engineer with DARS, features a tilted keyboard tray that is positioned to allow Nelson to easily reach the large-size keyboard from her wheelchair. The resulting workstation, which incorporates a number of precise details and measurements, also accommodates the monitor, processor and printer, and allows access to printer paper and miscellaneous books.

Katsioloudis said that from the research and design phases to the selection of materials and on through the actual construction the students learned to work together as a team. In the end, their efforts paid off.

They delivered the desk to Nelson's home on April 30, and were rewarded by getting to see the smile on her face when she moved her power wheelchair up to the desk and began to type. The first words she typed were a "thank you" for her new desk.

Katsioloudis also received the following note from Nelson a few days later: "I just wanted to write you and tell you how extremely grateful I am for you and your students for providing me with my new computer desk. It was a perfect fit. I just have to get used to the fact that I can work from my chair now. I am exceedingly relieved that I no longer have to sit on the floor in pain to continue doing what I love. You and your students did an excellent job and I can't express my gratitude enough. It nearly brought me to tears. I truly from the bottom of my heart appreciate you guys, you don't know how much this means to me. I can now continue on writing my books! Thank you guys so much!!!!"

Writing in their project summary, Joshua McLin and Jonathan Hester, the mechanical engineering technology majors who led the effort, said the team members gave it their best and were happy that they were able to present Nelson with "a piece of work we are all proud of."

They added: "Overall, our project was a success. We worked together as a team and built a very stable desk that Melody will be able to utilize and make her life easier."

Katsioloudis was likewise pleased with the result - as well as all the work that went into it - and gave the students an A for their final project. "The students did great on the project, and they delivered," he said.