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Engineering Students Assist Homeless Shelter

Project Will Help Lowell Center Save Money on Bed Repair

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Undergraduate students Andrew Alpuerto, left, and Eric Blake assemble the redesigned cots at the Lowell Transitional Living Center.

By Edwin L. Aguirre

This winter's ongoing blast of subfreezing temperatures hit everyone hard, especially the most vulnerable members of our community. Many homeless people have to fend off the potentially deadly cold with nothing but layers of clothes, newspapers and cardboard.

For its part, a class of mechanical engineering students under Asst. Prof. Christopher Hansen has been working with the Lowell Transitional Living Center (LTLC) to improve the cots used in the Center’s Winter Emergency Bed Program. 

The LTLC has been providing emergency shelter and hot meals and showers to homeless adult men and women in the Merrimack Valley since 1986.
“In February, we averaged 50-plus guests a night,” says LTLC Executive Director David McCloskey. “Between the Center’s dormitory and the emergency beds we are averaging 123 guests nightly.”
Each winter as many as 30 cot frames break during normal use.
“Many of the side rails of the cots bend or break when guests sit directly on them, and it costs about $20 to fix or replace each broken rail, so it adds up,” says Linda Barrington, the service-learning coordinator in the Francis College of Engineering.
Barrington was approached by LTLC Facilities Manager Richard Boucher, asking the college to help come up with an affordable solution. She contacted Hansen, who took on the challenge with students enrolled in his sophomore-level “Strength of Materials” course. They tested various insert materials to reinforce the frames and retrofitted two cots, which they recently delivered to the Center.

“The total cost to test the materials and retrofit the two cots was $200,” says Hansen. “The material cost for future retrofits is currently $15 per cot, and with donations of wooden dowel material, we envision the cost to drop to $1 per cot. This will offer the Center savings of up to $600 per season and many hours typically spent on cot repair.”

A Lesson in Real Life

“This project is an example of how students at UMass Lowell become ‘life-ready,’ ” explains Hansen. “It enables them to apply concepts they learned in class to solve real-life problems.”  

Students performed design analysis and calculations, produced group reports and visited the Center, allowing them to witness first-hand the face of homelessness in the community.

Funding for the project came from the University’s Department of Mechanical Engineering as well as a service-learning faculty grant awarded through the Massachusetts Board of Higher Education’s Vision Project. Gary Howe, laboratories director in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, donated his time to mechanically test the rails in the lab so students can analyze which design offered the best performance in terms of weight and cost.

“It’s a nice project. It can really make a difference to the least fortunate in Lowell,” says Barrington. 

Adds Hansen: “In the end, the Center’s staff and guests won’t notice any significant change in their use of the cots — except that fewer cot beams will break each winter season!”