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Engineering Students Open Up a World of Possibilities

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When four mechanical engineering students from the Frank R. Seaver College of Science and Engineering began work on their senior capstone project last year, they had no way of knowing what a life-changing experience it would become—both for them and for the young boy they helped to stand.

Jack Steinberg, then a fifth grader at LMU Family of Schools partner WISH Charter, suffers from a neurological movement disorder that makes it difficult for him to stand on his own. “One of the things that’s so important for Jack is that he’s standing,” explained his mother, Ivey Van Allen-Steinberg. “The Achilles tendons start to shorten through time if they sit too much, and that requires surgery.”

At the time, Jack was using a pediatric walker as a makeshift standing device, locked in place and weighted down to keep it from tipping over. The team from LMU knew they could do better.

For their capstone design project, then-seniors Deanna Watson ’14, Taylor Chavez ’14, James Christiansen-Salameh ’14 and Connor Alvarez ’14 designed and built an assistive stander that Jack could use both at school and at home. The portable device, known as the MOBI-S, features rotating clamps that can be attached to a variety of surfaces. Vertical extension bars allow it to be adjusted in height, so Jack can use it into adulthood.

The yearlong project yielded not only hands-on engineering experience, but also an invaluable connection to community through service. “We learned how to deal with the companies themselves, the manufacturers, the people physically making the parts,” said Christiansen-Salameh. “But then we also got this personal side of the story in dealing with the person we were actually making it for.”

“The first time we had him try it out, you could just see his eyes light up,” remembered Chavez. “It was a really awesome experience to see his reaction to the device.”

Learning Through Service
Choosing a service-oriented project was important to everyone on the team. “This project seemed the most real world to me,” said Christiansen-Salameh. “What you’re making is directly affecting a person’s life.”

“I think our project was very unique in that we were able to make something for somebody that actually needed it,” added Chavez. “We weren’t just using the skills we developed as engineering majors, we were also learning through service as well.”

Ultimately, that’s what the course is all about, said mechanical engineering professor Nader Saniei, who supervised the design projects last year. “In addition to being a technical engineering project, this gave the students a sense of satisfaction beyond academic value,” he explained. “The driving force behind these projects is the fact that engineers can and should make a difference in people’s lives.”

That directive applies not only to the projects’ beneficiaries, but to the students as well. “After completing this project, these students graduated from LMU with a feeling that their contributions to society as mechanical engineers had already begun,” said Saniei. “I am really proud of them.”

“This project opened up a whole new world of engineering to me,” said Watson. “I feel like there’s no limit to what we could come up with.”