The Little Light House - The University of Tulsa

The Little Light House

MADE at TU 2021: A trike, a slide, surfin’ tubes and more!

Despite the challenges of this very strange pandemic year, students involved in The University of Tulsa’s Make a Difference Engineering (MADE at TU) program once again rose to the challenge and designed an array of mobility and adaptive devices for children with disabilities. 

Ever since MADE at TU began in the 1970s, students – especially those who have a family member or relative with a disability — have been drawn to its service component. “Over the years, the organization has attracted many great students who want to apply their talents to these projects that help those with special needs,” said John Henshaw, chair of the Department of Mechanical Engineering. “They use MADE at TU as a stepping stone for their future endeavors, which makes me feel great.” 

MADE at TU meets every Friday as a class and as an organization, usually with around 50 students in the class. A typical project takes two to three semesters to complete (sometimes longer), depending on the complexity of the project and the number of team members. There are no tests and no homework, but members are expected to work on and complete their projects. In this story, we shine a light on seven of the projects brought to fruition in 2021. 

Music Makes Smiles 

two young women wearing face masks standing behind a colorful glockenspiel-type musical instrumentMechanical engineering and music double major Anna Godinez was the team leader for Music Makes Smiles, a project delivered to The Little Light House. The other members were Katie Eugenio, Nathan Fahland, Riley McEnery, Jacob Sharp and Emily Wetzel. Taken together, they brought various engineering backgrounds and different musical talents to the design table.  

Godinez and her teammates’ MADE at TU project was a color-coded glockenspiel-inspired musical instrument. The instrument has notes that span a C-major scale with the aluminum keys having been fabricated and tuned appropriately in TU’s machine shop.  

“In order to be considerate of different gross motor abilities, our instrument has three different ways of being played,” Godinez said. “The first is by pressing on the colorful plastic balls that are attached to mallets placed directly below each aluminum key. When pressed, a mallet moves upwards, striking its corresponding key and emitting a sound.” 

The second and third methods that Godinez and her team developed consisted of using velcro straps to attach a hand mallet onto the musician’s arm, wrist or hand. Once the mallet is attached, a musician can strike the keys from above. 

“Music Makes Smiles was made possible due to team members working overtime and weekends to get the project finished,” Godinez remarked. “This was especially challenging due to the COVID-19 precautions across the TU campus. However, our team was determined, and it was a success!”  

Sandbox Project 

Garrett Tredway and his MADE @ TU teammates — Hunter Albers, Danny Tapp, Josh Falbo, Jackson Habrock, Colin Krueger and Abel Reji — designed a multifunctional sandbox for the students at Kendall Whittier Elementary School. The sandbox was requested by the school’s Exceptional Student Services’ staff, whose purpose is to foster an inclusive environment for students with physical or developmental disabilities.  

two little children playing in a sandbox designed to look like a carTredway and his team’s goal was to create a space for students who struggle in social settings, such as recess, or need extra time away from the classroom. Additionally, the sandbox was designed with a ledge for students to sit on so they can play in the sandbox without being exposed to sand. The team designed the sandbox in the shape of a car and decorated it with Kendall Whittier School’s symbols and mantras.

“Our team consisted of members that had several years of MADE at TU experience and had previously served at and done work with Kendall Whittier,” Tredway commented. “We were so blessed to have this opportunity, even after having to overcome the seemingly endless barriers posed by COVID-19, and we’re happy that our project will impact the lives of many children at the school.”  

Surfin’ Tubes 

a small, colorful slide for childrenKirsten Erickson and her team also delivered a project to Kendall Whittier Elementary School. Their invention is Surfin’ Tubes, which is a slide made with colorful rollers that serves as a multi-purpose classroom activity that helps stimulate children’s senses while also enabling them to have fun. Kirsten’s team included Jessica Dunway, Gloria Lee, George Legan, Taylor Montes and Jared Rohm. 

“Surfin’ Tubes was actually an older project that had been returned to TU for repairs years ago,” explained Erickson. “Our team replaced some of the rollers, added new UV-resistant colorful material to the rollers and designed and constructed a completely new staircase for the slide.”

The team delivered the slide in May 2021 to one of Kendall Whittier’s special education classrooms for students to enjoy. “Our team had the opportunity to see a few students test out the slide and they could not stop going up and down. It brought a big smile to all our faces to see the success of the project and the happiness it has brought to the classroom,” Erickson said. 

Drug Destruction 

a young person wearing a face mask and a black shirt holding a jug filled with foamy dark liquidSenior mechanical engineering major Jordan Johnson’s project – Drug Destruction — focused on the appropriate, efficient and cost-effective destruction and disposal of controlled substances. 

The client for this design was Dr. Michelle Lamb, a pharmaceutical specialist who reached out to MADE at TU after a previous MADE at TU project was developed for her child. Dr. Lamb recognized the absence of user-friendly and fully functional products on the market for drug destruction, and Jordan sought to assemble a product worthy of the pharmaceutical industry’s recognition. 

Johnson designed a solution comprising a 3D-printed integrated lid, a pre-purchased ergonomic and transparent container, a silicon epoxy-bonded utility funnel and an all-natural activated charcoal solution to deactivate the deposited drugs. “We initiated contact with 27 clients across Oklahoma and created a Google Survey to gain feedback on what we can do to improve,” Johnson noted. “Although this project is a little on the unconventional side for MADE at TU, Drug Destruction certainly has a promising future ahead.” 

Bikes for Moore 

Bikes for Moore, co-led by Myranda New and Julia Behlmann, works to make adaptable bikes for children with disabilities. The other members of the team, which has been together since fall 2019, are Jack Oxley and Evan Phillips. 

The Bikes for Moore team designed a tricycle for a little girl named Evelyn, who has POLG-related mitochondrial disease, which requires her to actively exercise and work to get the base amount of energy other people create without extra effort. For years, physical therapists told Evelyn’s parents that she would not be able to pedal a bike due to the advanced coordination and balance bike riding requires. Evelyn’s mother, Rosemary, reached out to John Henshaw to ask if one of the MADE at TU teams could design a tricycle specifically for Evelyn.  

a young child dressed in pink riding a pink tricycleNew, Behlmann, Oxley and Phillips spent an entire semester researching how to adapt a tricycle to suit Evelyn’s needs. A major focus of their investigation was the study of a linear pedaling mechanism that would require Evelyn simply to push the pedals to move the trike as opposed to rotating the pedals. Right as the COVID-19 pandemic began, the team had ordered parts for what they called the “guts” of Evelyn’s trike, but were met with the double obstacle of no longer having access to a lab space and being sent home by the university. 

“Because of how far the pandemic was pushing us behind schedule, we recentered the focus of our plan on customizing a trike by integrating the linear pedaling mechanism into it as opposed to constructing one from scratch, and this was the best idea we had yet,” New said. “We scoured several trike websites to find the perfect fit for Evelyn and catered to what we wanted to have for her custom piece, including a recumbent seat for balance and rear-wheel steering. What we found was the Mobo Mobito, and it was exactly what Evelyn needed.” 

Evelyn made a visit to TU to try the size of the trike and she was able to pedal the trike on her first try. “Once her balance was secured, she was able to focus on the coordination of her feet, and this trike frame allowed Evelyn to pedal rotationally. From there, we focused on making the trike more comfortable for her, which included adjusting the brake so it could more properly fit her hand, adding bricks and straps to the pedals to increase height and security, and adapting the aesthetic of the trike to Evelyn’s tastes” New recalled. With test runs every few weeks, the team was able to customize the trike to fit Evelyn perfectly.  

After many test runs and adjustments to the trike’s pedals, Bikes for Moore was able to deliver the finished product to Evelyn in April 2021. Evelyn’s mother continues to send the team updates about Evelyn and her trike, including pictures and videos.  

Walk the Walk 

a blue metal walker and a series of yellow rectangles arranged on the floorMax McElyea, president of MADE at TU, delivered her project, called Walk the Walk, to The Little Light House in spring 2021. Her team members included Omar Aly, Colin Eichkorn, Achmed Johnson, Omar Marentes, Jose Prado and Hassan Almohasen.

When McElyea joined MADE at TU during her freshman year, she brought an idea for a project that was close to home for her. McElyea has a blind relative who struggled to learn how to walk, so her project reflected this challenge.  

Walk the Walk is a modular tile set and walker for visually impaired children that helps them learn how to walk. The tiles can be arranged in any order for different needs, including walking straight and practicing turns. The walker is made of polyvinyl chloride and has adjustable heights, while the tiles are medium density fiberboard that was machined on the Shop Bot at the Tulsa Fab Lab, a machine shop made accessible to the Tulsa community. 

Activity Boards 

Chris Montgomery was the team lead for the Activity Boards project. His team, which included Cody Barnes, Rofoldo Coronado, Sage Johnson, Zach Leavitt, Gage McCollum, Navin Singh and Kendall Yetter designed and manufactured two sensory activity boards for The Little Light House, which had approached MADE with an idea for sensory boards for their outdoor play area. Montgomery and his team were allowed to get as creative as possible to deliver the Little Light House something special. 

four young men wearing face masks and standing behind large activity boards for childrenThe first board was a single piece of a common plastic often seen in outdoor playgrounds. The team chose this material because they knew it was safe for children and could withstand the Oklahoma elements. They gave it an “under the sea” theme, with a ball drop that ends in a sunken pirate ship, a spinning pirate wheel, textured fish and a treasure map. The back of the board serves as a whiteboard that therapists can use for teaching or a variety of art activities. 

“Both boards were well-received and loved by the children,” Montgomery said. “All of the add-ons helped to stimulate their senses of sight, sound and touch. From an engineering standpoint, our project allowed us to get creative while teaching us a variety of safety considerations that we might not have otherwise considered. Additionally, it provided exposure to a variety of hands-on manufacturing that allowed us to further develop the skills we had learned both in lab and in the classroom.” 

The second board the team created was themed with various biomes: desert, jungle and Arctic. For this board, the team ditched the single sheet of plastic design and opted for three separate sheets that form a triangle upon assembly. This eliminated some of the tripping hazards the first board presented. The jungle board features a flower wheel that makes noise when spun, a croaking toad, a bamboo chime and many textured bugs, flowers and frogs. The Arctic board includes a snowman with a whiteboard for a face, a penguin that “hops” over the board and Northern Lights spinners. The desert board has four removable smaller boards with textured animals and various sliders that children in wheelchairs can easily interact with. 

MADE at TU is looking to expand its reach into other colleges and majors beyond engineering. “To the extent that other students get involved, it makes MADE at TU a better organization because different students think differently about different kinds of problems,” noted John Henshaw, chair of the Department of Mechanical Engineering. “I don’t care what your background is or if you’ve never held a screwdriver. If you’re a TU student and you want to help those with special needs, then you should join MADE.”  

For more information about MADE at TU and how to get involved, contact John Henshaw at 


Freedom of speech: TU’s speech-language pathology students and faculty deploy latest technology to support expressive communication

When you were in elementary school, did you ever stealthily pass a handwritten note to a friend while your teacher’s back was turned? Have you ever nodded approvingly as a colleague presented her ideas at a meeting or sent a smiley-face emoji to a friend while texting? These and myriad other forms of familiar non-verbal communication are examples of augmentative and alternative communication (AAC).

For most people, AAC – which roughly boils down to communication that happens without talking – is a common addition to speaking. Speech-language pathologists, however, deploy AAC technologies to help people for whom speaking is either a major challenge or even an impossibility; for example, children with autism or cerebral palsy, and adults with aphasia or who have suffered a stroke or a traumatic brain injury. “Speech-language pathologists help people engage with the world around them,” remarked master’s student Cassie McGough; “AAC technologies support that work.”

AAC for all ages

At The University of Tulsa, students in the Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders have the opportunity to acquire essential AAC-related skills and knowledge through their coursework at both the undergraduate and graduate levels. Master’s students are also able to deepen their engagement with AAC by participating in a clinical practicum. In addition, TU is the only university in Oklahoma that delivers AAC assessments for community members who have complex communication needs, both children and adults. Graduate students conduct these through the on-campus Mary K. Chapman Speech & Hearing Clinic, and the hope is one day to be able to expand this service beyond the university.

One of the linchpins of the AAC training made available at TU is Clinical Assistant Professor of Speech-Language Pathology Ronda Marfechuk. Certified for the past 14 years as an assistive technology professional (ATP) by the Rehabilitation Engineering Society of North America, Marfechuk explained AAC as “an area of speech-language pathology that helps individuals who don’t have natural speech to communicate.”

In speech-language pathology treatments, she observed, AAC can be something as low-tech as a pen and paper, as medium-tech as a push-button device that speaks individual words or as high-tech as digital tablets not dissimilar from an iPad. “As technology advances,” Marfechuk said, “AAC tools are becoming smaller and contain more vocabulary and abilities in the area of eye gaze. Experiments are also now underway to develop switches that can read the brain in order to activate them and generate speech.”

Of course, the humans using and benefiting from AAC are the prime concern for speech-language pathologists. “Working with little ones who haven’t yet spoken, these devices are a way to enhance and support their language development,” McGough commented. Now in her final semester of graduate school, McGough is also passionate about hospice work at the other end of the life spectrum, and she noted that AAC technology can be a great help in that context. “For some hospice residents, the muscles that work to enable speech are very weak, which means they are unable to communicate their wants and needs. So, if they have a device they are able to activate to say ‘I love you’ to a family member or ‘I need my pain medicine’ to a nurse, that’s what AAC is able to accomplish.”

Clinical experiences and community service

One of the benefits of studying speech-language pathology at TU is the opportunity to engage in clinical experiences. For Marfechuk’s students, these include working with people who require AAC technology. Clinical observations and interventions take place at the university’s Speech & Hearing Clinic, which welcomes a wide variety of patients from age 2 to beyond 90. It also occurs within community organizations, such as The Little Light House and The Center for Individuals with Physical Challenges.

During the fall 2019 semester, for example, students in Marfechuk’s course on communication modalities and special populations spent five sessions working directly with children at The Little Light House. The sessions focused on teaching how to use AAC. Working in pairs, students also had the opportunity to do an evaluation for an AAC device, write a report and make recommendations based on their findings.

“A lot of time parents will feel defeated,” noted master’s student Claire Collard, “because they hadn’t expected to have a child who they will never hear say ‘I love you’ or even just a simple ‘I’m hungry.’ Being able to provide that bridge for parents – whether in the classroom, clinic or a place like The Little Light House – is amazing. It’s about helping parents form a bond with their children.”

Clarey Sharum, a speech-language pathologist at The Little Light House, emphasized the impact of the therapy and training sessions TU students delivered:

The Little Light House is fortunate to have an ongoing partnership with the TU speech-language pathology program. We are so grateful for the graduate students’ hard work and interest, as well as for their loving spirits, which they continually show toward our kiddos who require AAC assistance.

These emerging speech-language pathology professionals expertly helped the children develop their confidence and communication skills. In addition, their efforts and dedication provided the Little Light House with 10 completed AAC reports. Once these are submitted through the children’s insurance providers, it could allow several of them to receive their very own speech-generating device.

These AAC devices will certainly be life-changing to these children and their families. It will allow young people who do not have a voice to be able to walk down their school hallways greeting their teachers, expressing their needs in the classroom, engaging with their peers at lunchtime and much more.

Marfechuk underscored not only the importance of such clinical experience to the professional development of future speech-language pathologists but also the enthusiasm for and personal satisfaction her students derive from those encounters. “Indeed, most of our master’s students graduate with over the maximum number of required hours in clinical work,” she noted. “I’ve had a whole bunch of great experiences using AAC with my clients,” remarked one of those students, Elizabeth Dorre. “So many of my clients improve their communication using a device and I see so much satisfaction – even joy – on their faces when they are able to make a request or express an emotion. This makes me so motivated to keep going.”

AAC travels the Mother Road

Another sign of the vibrancy of AAC at TU is the decision to make these systems the focus of 2020’s annual Route 66 Conference on Communication Disorders (Feb. 28): Building Blocks for Successful AAC Intervention. Anna Petersen, the co-chair of this year’s conference and a fourth-year student in the undergraduate speech-language pathology program, commented, “I have seen firsthand how important AAC can be for clients who are not making the progress they need without additional tools and support. AAC opens the door for people who can’t use the typical speech pathways. As research and technology advance, AAC therapy techniques are only going to improve.”

The presenter for the 2020 conference is Trina Becker, an associate professor at Eastern Illinois University in the Department of Communication Disorders and Sciences, as well as the director of that university’s Speech-Language-Hearing Clinic. Commenting on the value of having such an expert lead the conference, Petersen noted, “I’m really excited that TU is hosting Trina Becker because she will be able to provide practical and meaningful training for implementing AAC with maximal results. I specifically hope to learn more about how to train communication partners because effective communication is, after all, a two-way street.”

Now’s a great time to explore a career as a speech-language pathologist. Check out TU’s renowned undergraduate and graduate communication sciences and disorders programs.