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Summer High School Students Grapple with Engineering and Community Service

A zoo-goer begins a lap around the camel track in the unmodified saddle still in use at the Bronx Zoo. As part of their project, students designed 18 unique design solutions to various Zoo rides, exhibits and park furniture.

About the only animals that weren't bothered by the oppressive summer heat at the Bronx Zoo were the camels, which are designed to survive desert conditions by nature. But could they be fitted with a special saddle for children with disabilities, only to walk in circles for the better part of such a sweltering day?

It's a question students in this year's "Engineering Design via Community Service" class for Columbia University summer high school students were prepared to conquer. Several of the 45 students at the School of Engineering and Applied Science (SEAS), where the course is taught and supervised by SEAS Associate Dean for Undergraduate Studies Jack McGourty, designed a contraption that allows kids with disabilities to mount and ride an interactive camel exhibit at the Bronx Zoo.

Last year a similar collaboration between SEAS and the School of Continuing Education brought together 40 junior and senior high school students from across the country to design a playground for students with disabilities at Harlem's landmark Marcus Garvey Park. The result: a revamped playground design that better addressed the special recreational needs of students at P.S. 79, a school for children with disabilities that is adjacent to the park.

At the Bronx Zoo, the students identified potential design solutions to enhance the Zoo's compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act, beyond the required regulations. To that end, students studied the Zoo's rides and exhibits, making design recommendations to improve access for visitors with disabilities. As part of the project, students designed 18 unique solutions to various Zoo rides, exhibits and park furniture. Managers from the Wildlife Conservation Society are now in the process of reviewing the design recommendations. Future SEAS students will work on those designs identified by Zoo management as worthy of further development.

The class is part of Columbia's Summer Program for High School Students, which for the past 19 years has offered highly motivated students a world-class summer educational experience in New York City. Students choose one specific course of study, and spend more than 16 hours per week in class or lab. Course options include Investigations in Theoretical and Experimental Physics, Constitutional Law, Critical Focus on the Visual Arts, Global Politics and Survey of Modern Mathematics. The program also offers a study abroad opportunity in Barcelona, Spain. This year's program ran from July 5 to August 19.

SEAS summer students measure the dimensions of the harness currently being used at the Bronx Zoo's camel ride exhibit. Working through the summer, these students designed an alternative saddle for children with disabilities.

"We work to attract the most highly-motivated high school students in the country," said Darlene Giraitis, the program's director. "Though the experience is a rigorous one, students have a great time and make some of the best friends of their lives, leaving with an academic experience that top colleges take careful notice of."

The summer is interspersed with fun or off-the-wall lectures such as the rollicking one held in July on "Science and the Paranormal," in which Joe Schwarcz, a chemistry professor from McGill University, gave a lecture on the "science" behind magic tricks and unexplained phenomena.

But the students' mainstay is their work -- such as the 15-20 page thesis required for the American Presidential Power class or the extensive PowerPoint presentation and formal design report SEAS students must do as part of their final project for the Zoo.

On a recent zoo visit, the students learned that the camel ride presents unique challenges for kids with disabilities and that designing a solution isn't always so simple.

"You don't want (an individual with disabilities) to be locked on the camel and in a situation where it's very difficult to get off," said Ruth Iannuzzi, supervisor for special animal exhibits at the Zoo. "We're in a very unpredictable atmosphere here, particularly on Wednesday when it's free admission, it's just like Armageddon sometimes. You wonder how the camels keep it together."

While rare, the Zoo's camels can sometimes be spooked, meaning that any harness designed to accommodate a person with disabilities must allow for a quick and easy dismount. It's a tremendous design challenge that had the SEAS students nearly reconsidering the idea.

"I think we can still design something," said 17-year-old Connie Chang of Holmdel, N.J.

During their final presentations in August, students also recommended that walkways around the zoo be paved with different textures, so that blind people can sense, with their feet, when they were nearing a different exhibit -- a relatively minor change that could be easily implemented.

Designing something feasible is important because their work will serve as the foundation for SEAS' incoming freshmen who will follow up on several of these early designs in the required first-year engineering design course. The course utilizes the Botwinick Gateway Laboratory where students apply computer technologies such as computer-aided modeling, computational techniques and Web applications in their engineering designs.

"It's a tremendous transformation the summer students go through," said McGourty. "The course itself hones the essential professional skills associated with engineering design that these students will need if they decide to become engineers."

As a testament to the transformative effects, SEAS high school students credit their work this summer with changing their outlook toward people with disabilities.

"The last time we came to the Zoo, we talked to bunch of people in wheelchairs and felt more confident talking to people and asking questions," said 17-year-old Riva Anand of Westport, Conn. "And I've started noticing things like how well different city buses are equipped for wheelchair access now."

Published: Sep 07, 2005
Last modified: Sep 07, 2005

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