Servant Engineering

First launched in the spring of 2010, the Servant Engineering program allows students to use their technical gifts to serve others.

By Michael Richeson

It’s a typical Monday evening on campus, and the usual sights and sounds of students shuffling between classes have given way to a more peaceful scene. But the day is far from over for one group of aspiring engineers. In one room a team of three stares intently at a computer screen, debating the merits of a conceptual design; down the hall they are soldering components onto a circuit board; and outside a bamboo towing apparatus called a vangari is being attached to a modified bicycle and tested for structural integrity.

Groundbreaking devices are being created and perfected by students in the George Fox Servant Engineering program, but they won’t be displayed in a glass case or entered into a competition – they are meant to be used by the people who need them. A portable currency reader for the blind, a vibration therapy system that will help increase bone density in kids
who suffer from osteoporosis, and yes, even a more efficient way to transport goods in
Third-World countries.

Each one should use whatever gift he has received to serve others, faithfully administering God’s grace in its various forms.

– 1 Peter 4:10

Students at George Fox have always been encouraged to use their God-given talents to venture beyond the classroom and reach out to those in need. This often means different things to different people, but for this group, fulfilling the edict in 1 Peter 4:10 has taken on an especially unique and innovative form. The result: projects that are changing lives.

First launched in the spring of 2010, the Servant Engineering program allows students to use their technical gifts to serve others. Students spend four consecutive semesters in the required program and work with a myriad of clients and project ideas. In turn, they not only meet a real need, they also experience project management with a diverse range of clients, providing added value to their degree.

“If you can have an experience as a student which is more than conceptual, theoretical work, it’s an incredible engineering experience,” says Neal Ninteman, assistant professor of mathematics and engineering. “They go through a complete design cycle, from product conception all the way to delivery, which is extraordinary at their age.”

Ninteman said he doesn’t know of any other university in the nation that has integrated this type of service program as a required part of the engineering curriculum.

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‘A Great Partnership’

The Providence Center for Medically Fragile Children provides the bulk of the projects. The partnership began after Karen Masulis, a registered nurse at the center, called Ninteman and Gary Spivey, associate professor of electrical engineering, after reading a George Fox Journal article about a postural assist device for the blind.

Masulis says that working with the university has been an important benefit for the children.
The Providence Center is the only facility of its kind in Oregon and Washington, and engineering companies can’t make a profit solving problems for one or two special-needs kids. “It’s been so fun,” says Masulis, whose son David graduated from George Fox with an engineering
degree in 2011.

Masulis’ son served as lead on the first project – a prototype for a call-light system. “Most kids don’t have the coordination to flip a switch to call a nurse, and some of them can’t tell when they have called a nurse,” Masulis explains. “Servant Engineering developed a device that made a noise to let the child know they had properly called a nurse and that help was on the way.”

The pool lift will help patients with mobility issues more easily move in and out of a therapy pool.

The pool lift will help patients with mobility issues more easily move in and out of a therapy pool.

Most of the children at the center are dealing with some kind of brain injury from trauma or a birth defect. Cerebral palsy, epilepsy and developmental disabilities are the most common diagnoses.

“Industry will never provide a call system for one girl at Providence,” Ninteman says. “It’s not feasible. Academia is perfect because we have the expertise but we’re not bound by market forces.”

For the past two years, students spent the university’s annual Serve Day at the center fixing broken equipment, interacting with the children and discussing long-term projects with therapists.

“This year, the room was buzzing with enthusiasm and excitement,” Masulis says. “We got a ton of things fixed, and the therapists are so excited about the direction of the projects. It’s a great partnership.”

Students noticed the excitement, too. In a series of reflection papers, engineering majors wrote about how being able to use their gifting to help others has inspired them. “Servant Engineering has been such a blessing not only for those we are serving, but also for me personally,” wrote Stephanie Mount. “Seeing the reaction of the workers and then seeing the excitement in the kids was one of the most incredible things I’ve ever experienced. I was brought back and reminded of why we did the project and why I want to be an engineer. Seeing their faces made everything worthwhile and gave me a renewed motivation for Servant Engineering.”

As a client of the Servant Engineering program, and as the mother of a son who went through the program, Masulis has a unique point of view about its benefits. David is working as an engineer, and he is now an adviser for the class.

“It was exciting to him because he’s got a great heart, but his gifting is so technical,” Masulis explains. “There aren’t many places that value that when you’re talking community service.”

The marriage of technical gifting and service is what makes the program exciting and deeply rewarding, even for the professors.

“It’s affected me in the same way we hope it affects students,” Ninteman says. “It’s given me a chance to integrate my love for God and my desire to help people with my gifts as an engineer, which are often thought of as secular. Servant Engineering lets me live out my faith, lets me live out 1 Peter 4:10.”

‘This Could Help Other People’

Another Servant Engineering project, this one with mass-market potential, is in progress thanks to an idea by Newberg resident Laurie Wilson. Wilson, 52, fractured her neck in a car accident when she was 17. The wreck left her with physical complications that resemble a stroke victim. Her right side is weaker than her left side, and she wears off the toes of her right shoe because she drags her foot when she walks.

Her doctor found that if he rotated Wilson’s leg like she was riding a bicycle and then randomly jerked it to a stop, her right side became more engaged and she could walk better. Wilson couldn’t go to the doctor every day, though, and she wondered if a machine could produce the same result. She decided to contact university engineering departments to see if someone could help her. Her first, and only, stop was George Fox.

“I was amazed,’ Wilson says. “I just couldn’t believe it when they said yes. I thought I was going to have to go around and talk to many people. They were so kind about it.”

The result was the neuromuscular therapy bike, an exercise bike programmed to randomly stop. The sudden stops help recreate neurological patterns that were previously damaged.

“Immediately, I thought this could help other people,” Wilson recalls. “If you can stimulate the brain properly, then I think it could be huge. I hope this can be used for war veterans and people who’ve had strokes. I could see how this could help a lot of people.”

The bike is still a work in progress, but Wilson says that she’s already seeing the benefits. When she pedals the bike, she says her hip and leg feel like they are part of her again.

“The students have been positive and attentive and mature,” Wilson says. “The experience has been ideal.”

Ninteman says that the list of projects is growing, and with that comes added logistical difficulties, but he hopes the Servant Engineering model he and his students are pioneering
is contagious.

“There’s a limit to how much we can do, but there’s no limit to what the community of Christian engineers could do,” he says. “We have a vision for this to spread far beyond George
Fox University.”