Southwestern

Engaging Minds, Transforming Lives

Math & Computer Science

Form and Function

  • News Image
    Amir Hessabi (left) and Chandler Johnson show off a prototype of their solar lounge chair at the Research and Creative Works Symposium.
  • News Image
    The chair won the award for best creative work at the symposium.
  • News Image
    Members of the Paideia cohort let by Fumiko Futamura (right) pose for a photo with the three students who designed and built the chair). At left is Bob Mathis, associate vice president for facilities.

Students from a variety of disciplines collaborate on an award-winning project for campus

The Southwestern campus may soon have a series of custom-designed wooden lounge chairs where students can relax, read, and even charge their laptops while they are enjoying the outdoors.

It’s all the result of a project that was a joint effort between students in an engineering class and students in a Paideia cohort led by Fumiko Futamura, associate professor of mathematics.

Since the theme of Futamura’s Paideia cohort is creativity, students in the group wanted to come up with something that would encourage creativity on campus. They even got a SEED grant to help fund the project.

The Paideia cohort toured the campus with Bob Mathis, associate vice president for facilities, to determine possible locations that could be enhanced to promote interactive outdoor spaces. One simple solution that came to mind was to replace the chairs that were in front of the Olin Building with tables and chairs that would be more conducive to gathering. The group then came up with the idea to combine solar power with outdoor furniture to create sustainable outdoor interactive spaces.

While searching on the Internet, the group found something that appealed to them: tables and chairs with a “solar umbrella” to charge laptops while students are using them. There was only one problem with this product, however − it was prohibitively expensive.

As a result, the students decided to try and build something themselves. Since no one in the Paideia group had any background in engineering or architecture, they approached students in the Introduction to Engineering class taught by Steve Alexander and Rebecca Edwards for help. Two students in the class – Keeley Coburn and Amir Hessabi – got excited about the project and came up with the idea to build a solar-powered lounge chair.

Chandler Johnson, a junior architecture and design major, designed the chair and helped Coburn and Hessabi build it, along with Antonio Lopez and Mareah Lucio from the Paideia cohort. The chair is made of pieces of lightweight wood that are laminated together in a curvy, minimalist style. It features a cushioned seat that is at the optimum angle for working on a laptop and a covering over it where a solar panel can be placed.

The students were able to build a prototype for about $500, thanks to help from Southwestern shop manager Gerry Wade and a machine shop in Walburg that cut the wood pieces for them. Johnson and Hessabi showed the chair off at the 2014 Research and Creative Works Symposium, and it won the award for the best creative project. 

At the symposium, they also gathered input from students, faculty and staff on how the chair might be improved, and they got several good suggestions. Among these were to add cupholders and lights for evening reading.

Hessabi plans to finish working on the electrical components for the chair over the summer when he is on campus doing research with Alexander. The team has $4,500 left in their grant to build more chairs, and by fall, they hope to have several “pods” of them installed around campus.

Futamura said the project is a perfect demonstration of the creative process. “It started with imaginative brainstorming sessions, then required extensive testing and modifying ideas, a collaborative effort across disciplines and a lot of hard work,” she said. “It shows you have to be open to changing your initial plans due to various physical and financial constraints and also speaks to the power of interdisciplinary collaboration.”