Building solutions to meet real-world needs at school for the blind
by Lynn Otto
Professor Neil Ninteman (right) believes George Fox fosters an ethos that encourages vocation as ministry.
Electrical engineering professor Gary Spivey and senior Chris Hammond are hunched over a lab counter, soldering components on a tiny piece of circuit board.
“When people hear the words ‘Christian service,’ they don’t usually picture this,” Spivey says. “They might think of mission trips — building a church in Jamaica, teaching English in China, handing out sandwiches to the homeless — but nothing that requires the skills of an engineer.”
But Spivey and Hammond are working on the model of an earpiece that will help some of the students at the Oregon School for the Blind hold their heads level, helping them stay attentive and maintain a more socially acceptable posture. It’s called a postural assist and was designed over the past two years by faculty and students at George Fox University. And it all started with Serve Day.
Spivey and Neal Ninteman, assistant professor of mathematics and engineering, had discussed getting involved in assistive technology — designing things for people with special needs. Then on Serve Day in 2006, Ninteman found that his assignment was taking students to do maintenance work at OSB’s residential campus in Salem. “I called Gary at the last minute and asked him to come along,” he says. “I thought we should find out if there was anything they needed that we could engineer.”
A student at the Oregon School for the Blind tests the postural assist prototype designed by George Fox’s engineering department.
Their request to talk with teachers and students resulted in a full room and a two-hour conversation. “The question was barely out of our mouths before they inundated us with challenges, ideas and wishes. It was a profoundly sober awakening to the difficulties that blind people face every day,” Ninteman says. “At the same time, we were like kids in a sandbox. They would talk about something they wanted, and we would look at each other across the table, nodding, excited, thinking we can make that!”
“And we were blown away by the opportunity to serve right here,” Spivey adds. “We have a list of ideas that could keep us busy for a very long time — things we would never have thought of because we can see.”
One student asked if they could design something to make swimming laps easier. She wants to know when it’s time to kick-turn without relying on an assistant. Another complained that cars were getting too quiet and asked if they could design something that would enable blind people to know when one was approaching. Many requested a portable money-reader.
‘Bursting the bubble’ – Serve Day marks 10th year
When former President David Brandt instituted Serve Day in 1999, he did so with a vision: that George Fox “would be Christ’s hands and feet” to the communities around it. On the event’s 10th anniversary, that goal hasn’t changed.
What began as a small service project for new students during orientation weekends in the mid-1990s has blossomed into an outreach that now assists more than 70 organizations in four Portland-area counties. The annual tradition returned this September, when the university closed so that 1,500 students and employees could visit the elderly; work on weeding, painting, and cleaning projects; serve meals; and pick up trash for nonprofits, public agencies, churches, retirement homes, and individual citizens.
President Brandt sports his trademark tie-dyed shirt during the first Serve Day in 1999.
The idea of shutting down campus for an entire day was a radical idea in 1999. George Fox was the first university to do so, according to Campus Compact, a national coalition that promotes community service in higher education (compact.org). It has become vital to those served. “Without volunteer support, like that of the students and staff of George Fox, we could not do the work that we do,” says a Christie Care employee. “It would take us many volunteer hours and considerable financial resources to get done what George Fox does in a day,” says a Juliette’s House employee.
Students, too, recognize the day’s significance: “A lot of people say that when you’re at Fox you’re sort of in a bubble … but I’ve noticed, with days like Serve Day, a huge emphasis on bursting the bubble,” says junior Jordan Weiss.
Serve Day 2008 included game-playing with residents at the Cedar Creek Assisted Living Community in Sherwood, Ore.
This year’s theme, “Celebrate,” based on Philippians 4:4-5, was fitting in light of what the day has accomplished through the years. Since Serve Day began, about 9,000 volunteers have logged more than 100,000 hours at more than 150 unique sites.
"It’s a day that has become a deeply rooted tradition in the life of the George Fox community as we seek to show the love of Christ through service,” says Brad Lau, vice president of student life.
Or, as one Serve Day recipient puts it, “They say God sends angels, and that’s what happens on Serve Day — God sends his angels to help us.”
One student asked for a graphing calculator with a tactile display. “The main thing that’s limiting this person in his study of math is his inability to read a standard graphing calculator,” says Ninteman, who has a hard time imagining a mathematician being without one.
A teacher asked if they could design something to help her students learn to hold their heads in a more upright position. “That’s the project we started with,” Ninteman says.
Junior and senior students helped design the prototype, using the department’s printed-circuit-board fabrication line to build the electronics and a 3D printer to produce housing models. “It’s an earpiece that vibrates when the wearer’s head tips forward. It uses an accelerometer as a tilt sensor — something you’d find in a Wii game controller — and a potentiometer thumbwheel that lets you vary the angle at which it’s triggered.”
Spivey and Ninteman returned to Oregon School for the Blind on Serve Day the next two years with engineering students in tow. After working on the grounds this year, they met with staff and students to get feedback on the postural assist prototype and ask for more ideas.
“They had plenty,” Ninteman says. “It was great for our students to experience what Gary and I did. Although the innovations of engineering have an impact on a great deal of human experience, there are areas that are largely untouched. By God’s providence, we’ve been dropped into this pocket of need.”
The engineer stereotype — scientist holed up in labs with computers, calculators and circuit boards — doesn’t hold true at George Fox, Ninteman says. “In addition to God gifting us with the ability to use technology to solve problems, he also has given us the desire to love our neighbors. Working with the Oregon School for the Blind has been helping us do both.”
Research grants allowed upperclassmen Hammond and Garrett Blizzard help Spivey and Ninteman fine-tune the postural assist last summer. On Serve Day this year, they demonstrated the prototype, which was well received.
“We’ve done some work on a money reader,” Ninteman says, “and Gary’s been involved in research that might help us build lap-swim assists, and we’d really like to make the graphing calculator — a major project that would take significant funding.”
But Ninteman and Spivey have an even bigger dream: a George Fox Center for Engineering Outreach that would develop and support a culture of “servant engineering.” “The goal would be for the engineering department to become a center for service projects undertaken by Christian engineers — our students and those in industry — who feel a deep calling to use their gifts outside of their careers. We want to connect them with the need and colleagues and equipment to make solutions a reality.”