By Joe Hadsall
Globe Features Editor
JOPLIN, Mo. —
Michael Moritz, Travis Coffee and Kenneth Paylor had no idea that an assignment for their senior design class at Missouri Southern State University would win an award or the emotional gratitude from a service organization.
To them, they just had to make a drying rack. They saw the physical details -- weight, resistance, tensile strength, compressive strength, ease of replication, etc.
But they didn't see what the rack meant to those who commissioned it.
"We were blown away by what they had done," said Rikki Smith, service learning coordinator with the university. "They didn't know how many people they touched by what that prototype held."
The three seniors were recognized Tuesday for their project with the Spirit of Service Award, an annual honor from the university's Service Learning department.
The rack is engineered to hold plywood stars that are about a half-inch thick and less than a foot wide. Notched PVC pipes hold each star at two minimal contact points and allow each star to hang independently without touching other stars.
The rack can hold more than 300 stars and has wheels for portability. Each cart is built to hold 30 to 50 pounds of stars.
And that's a big deal for members of Stars of Hope, such as Smith.
The Stars of Hope project is a community art project for areas affected by tragedies such as natural disasters or man-made violence. Originating in New York City after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the project features stars painted with messages of hope by students that are placed around the area.
Several of the stars can be seen in Joplin, especially around the site of Joplin High School. The group visited Joplin in September 2011 and provided more than 3,000 stars that community members painted.
That means a lot of stars get painted -- and, more importantly, dried. Each star gets painted twice: once with a single-color base and again by the community member who decorates it with a message.
Smith said that volunteers usually lay out stars on tarps along sidewalks or wherever they can find space.
"We'd take sheets of heavy paper or plastic and put them on the ground or tape them to ceramic floors," Smith said. "It takes up a lot of space and a long time to dry. This solved multiple issues, because it's very hard to move stars when they are laying out flat on plastic. Especially when they are still wet."
Getting to work
All three of the design students spent the semester working on the project in a design class taught by Fran Bartholet.
"He brought it to our attention," said Moritz, a pre-engineering major from Carl Junction. "Their process wasn't working, so we improved on what they had and tried to keep the price as low as possible."
Moritz said project volunteers had used a system of dowel rods to dry them. But the dowels weren't very portable or sturdy.
"We looked at a laundry rack we had bought at Wal-mart, and came up with some original concepts," Paylor said.
The trio quickly broke up tasks according to their strengths -- one handled the design process while another handled manufacturing, for instance. A full presentation and work plan was devised, from computer-aided designs to physical tests and making parts. Tense moments were handled with Coffee's Chuck Norris jokes.
Still, they hit dead ends. But local industry experts, including employers, were able to help by pointing them in the right direction, Paylor said.
One of them, Mike Harp of American Tool and Engineering, helped critique original designs and give the trio some critical direction.
"He knew we were on the right track of being able to produce something similar and more cost-effective," Coffee said.
And when they made their presentation for their final grade, the judges also threw out ideas for improvement. That's exactly the kind of feedback engineers hope for, Moritz said.
"We're hoping someone improves on our idea," Moritz said. "Maybe someone can make it better. That's what's great, building upon what's already out there."
Already plans have been discussed on how to adapt the construction so that Girl Scouts can safely build the racks -- cutting the notches is best done with a mill, Coffee said. And Smith said other branches of the Stars of Hope program already have access to the design prototypes and are wondering how to build their own racks.
The three students were overwhelmed by the positive response they got after introducing their prototype. The class was meant to demonstrate the daily job in the engineering field, after all.
But the prototype brought Smith to tears, she said. While it doesn't help paint stars any faster, the rack -- or racks, because more of them are bound to be made -- let volunteers dry and transport stars more easily. Because they are not brushing against each other, the stars won't scratch each others' paint. Also, placing stars around a community will get easier.
"One of the things we asked for was the ability to put this in the back of a pickup truck," Smith said. "That way we can hand out stars to people who are posting them."
Making the prototype gave the three a first-hand example of what their careers in engineering will be like.
Moritz is bound for the University of Arkansas's school of architecture and will go from drying racks to buildings. Coffee, who along with Moritz is a drafter at Stewart and Neece Land Surveying, is working to become an industrial engineer. Fresh off graduation, Paylor is applying for a local design job.
Though the students knew they were working on a community service project, the impact only recently hit them.
"Finding out this was going international was pretty overwhelming," Paylor said. "I never thought it would do anything like that."
The racks are bound for areas damaged by Hurricane Sandy, the flood-damaged Minot, N.D., and Newtown, Conn., the site of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting.
"That rack is going to travel more than I ever have," Moritz said.
During Tuesday's ceremony honoring Michael Moritz, Travis Coffee and Keith Paylor, other students earned awards from MSSU's service learning program: