Cover Photo Image

‘We chose all materials that Haitians could buy themselves. That’s just one example of how much attention we paid to our four pillars of engineering — environmental, technical, social and economical — for this project. Those pillars mattered in nearly every one of our decisions on this project.’

Jon Picart (’15)

How did you come up with the wheelchair project?

Dr. Mary Tacy from geography does these trips to Haiti often and she helps out the locals there in Port au Prince. She saw that there was a real need for wheelchairs for children there, so she contacted JMU Engineering, and eventually our group just kind of went for it after that. We did a bunch of research on the area, the environment, the people there and what kinds of disabilities they have. The kid who we are working with now — his name is Stephenson Gay — lost use of his lower limbs early in his life. What his mother does now is she just sits him on this stool on their front porch, and then he just sits there and looks out all day. He can’t even participate in school, and his mother is away from the home working.

How are you planning to help?

We want to create a vehicle, in its most abstract form, for the Stephensons and all Haitian children so that they can lead somewhat normal lives. And hopefully, we want to build something simple enough that they can fix it themselves with IKEA-type instructions — so right now we have assembly instructions that are all pictures and no words. The team is T.J. McKeever, Katie Hess, Joey Silva and me. I’m the project manager. Joey and Katie are really good at CAD modeling, so they have been working on that. T.J. is our treasurer, and he’s also been helping me with the math calculations. So one team is testing computer models and doing a bunch of analysis on that, and then T.J. and I are doing hand calculations. Our plan is to put both sets of findings together at the end of our project so that we can compare them.

Is there a real-world aspect to your project?

Oh, it’s very real-world. We do lots of memos and progress reports along with our meetings with our engineering adviser Dr. Jacquelyn Nagel. The engineering faculty wants us to work on technical writing, so that’s where the memos that detail what we are doing come into play. They are short, sweet, right to the point. And then we meet with both of our advisers, Dr. Tacy and Dr. Nagel. We also have mid-term review sessions where we pitch what we have so far and what our plans are, and then our advisors and other engineering faculty either OK those or give us direction on where we need to go.


Speaking of the real-world, here's a freshman research program for ANY major


How is it going so far?

In the first couple of semesters, we struggled because we were beginning our junior year and we didn’t know a lot of things. We had no idea of the area of Haiti, so we did preliminary research on whatever Dr. Tacy gave us and then we went off in a particular direction, but we didn’t really take into consideration how the Stephensons would react to our idea or really how the chair would be used in the environment, and so after our professors urged us to think about those factors, we changed our approach. We changed a bunch of components and some other factors from the original design.

Are you happy with where the project is headed?

I think we still need the rest of this semester to work out the kinks, but I think we’ll get a good bit of it finished by the end of the semester.

Talk about how you incorporated facets of JMU’s four pillars of engineering.

For environmental, we wanted to use parts from what exists in the junk yards in Haiti because we learned from Dr. Tacy and from our own research that there is an over-abundance of bicycle tires there, so that’s what we chose for our tires. The same is true of PVC pipe, which we also used in the wheelchair’s construction. We found out that they can’t weld things there because all they have are flame torches, and those don’t get hot enough to weld, so that’s why we went with the PVC instead. We are all about limiting the amount of metal parts that they need. PVC is easy to clean and pretty much waterproof, too, and fairly easy to assemble if you have the glue and all the necessary parts. For social, the whole point of the wheelchair is to get a person more acclimated into normal life activities. The economical pillar is posing more of a dilemma because we’re concerned that people may take the wheelchairs apart and salvage the parts for money, so we’re still working through that issue. This is reaching, but it’s our hope to actually stimulate their economy by having their technicians build the chairs and other professionals become involved in the build process, too.

Next profile


Jon Picart (’15)

Major: Engineering
Hometown: Virginia Beach, Va.
Highlights: Looked at schools throughout Virginia before choosing JMU; older brother was a JMU integrated science and technology major; came in undeclared, and then chose engineering spring semester of his freshman year.

Featured in this article
College of Integrated Science and Engineering

Get the printable poster!

Back to Top