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Columbia Program Teaches Teens to Engineer Playgrounds for the Disabled


Rendering of design for interactive playground equipment for physically impaired children

A collaboration between the School of Continuing Education's Summer Program for High School Students, The Fu Foundation School of Engineering and the Harlem Community brought together 40 junior and senior high school students from across the country to design a playground for disabled elementary school students.

The "Real Projects" course, taught by Jack McGourty, associate dean for undergraduate studies at the School of Engineering , teaches fundamentals of engineering design along with teamwork, leadership, organization and presentation skills. Students learn as they experience the gratification of helping others. "While it immerses the student in the engineering design process, service learning also develops a lifelong orientation toward social responsibility and community service," McGourty says.

During an intensive summer schedule, the high school students studied one of the playgrounds in Harlem's landmark Marcus Garvey Park , located south of 125 th Street along the axis of 5 th Avenue . The revamped playground would address the special recreational needs of students at P.S. 79, a school that is adjacent to the park and is geared toward children with disabilities.

The course practices a holistic design model. Students consulted physical and occupational therapists, neighborhood advocates and teachers to gain insight into the children's challenges needs. Split into eight teams, and each group designed a piece of playground equipment for a specific disability, such as hearing impairment, visual impairment or physical or learning disability. Field trips to the park and other educational locations provided inspiration and guidance from practical and aesthetic standpoints.

The project will be continued this fall by incoming freshman in the School of Engineering . "Engineering is the application of science for the benefit of humanity," says Zvi Galil, dean of the School of Engineering . "Creating a course that uses community service learning is a natural extension of the can-do philosophy of engineering to bring real-world experience to students at all educational levels." Undergraduates will take select designs from the high school students and provide detailed analysis and models of them as part of the introductory class, Gateway Course: Design Fundamentals Using Advanced Computer Technologies, with a goal of building prototypes in the spring.

The service-learning approach to the playground gives as much to its designers as to the children who will use it. Grace Hong, a senior from Bayside, N.Y., entered the program wanting to design ergonomic toys for handicapped children but was unexpectedly delighted by the playground project: "Just knowing that somehow we are affecting a life -- of even one kid -- it's something very memorable. It's a treasure that we're all going to hold on to forever."

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Published: Oct 13, 2004
Last modified: Jan 10, 2005

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