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Ideation to fabrication, students’ class project a ‘privacy’ solution for area homeless shelter

Story By:
Paul Miller | Director of Strategic Communications and Community Relations

Chai Cotton ’24 will tell you that, as a college student and as a human being, her curiosity is easily piqued, which helps to explain her inspiration for a rewarding class project that has gone from vision to concept to reality.

The beneficiary is an at-need population in the community she has grown up in, Keene.

During Chai’s routine walk to campus, the Keene State student often passes the new Hundred Nights homeless residence that is rising, story by story, on a corner lot off Water Street near campus. When complete in early 2023, the residence will allow for shelter beds, including for families; support services; and case-management work under one roof. Also, it will provide a wealth of space compared to its cramped confines in an alley building in the city’s downtown just blocks away.

Thanks to Chai and four fellow Keene State students in the Sustainable Product Design and Innovation (SPDI) program – Rio Del Sol Vasquez Billin ’23, Madeline “Maddie” Maynard ’24, Tyler Mignano ’22 and Collin Morton ’23 – the housing unit will feature A-shaped privacy partitions between beds in the non-family section. Using sustainable approaches and eco-friendly materials, to the extent that it has been possible budget-wise, the students are fashioning five partitions that also serve as shelving units.

Ultimately, Hundred Nights hopes to have up to a dozen of the partitions, Mindy Cambiar, the shelter’s executive director since 2013, said. The new residence will feature 48 beds for guests: four men’s rooms with four beds each, two women’s rooms with four beds each and four family rooms.

Chai said it has been the perfect class project because the setting is real, not imagined or drawn from a textbook; the result is development of a useful product; and because it is a reminder of the power of service-learning.

The student team aims to deliver the partitions ahead of the shelter’s opening, at no cost.

Chai Cotton '24
Chai Cotton works on a partition that she and other students designed and are fabricating for an area homeless shelter.

Real-world learning is a staple of a Keene State education, and at the heart of the intent of the liberal arts experience. Fifty-five percent of Keene State seniors participated in an internship or field experience in 2021-22.

Undergraduates enjoy these opportunities, too, as well as chances to participate in professional research across areas of study. Testing of biomedical materials and investigating how local wood burning affects air quality are two examples.

The popular SPDI program – pronounced “speedy” – emphasizes product design with an eye toward a sustainable world. Its curriculum draws from five disciplines: art, management, mathematics, safety, and industrial/product design.

The program is the only one of its kind in New England that combines industrial design, project management and manufacturing engineering technologies.

Chai, 20, found the major by happenstance.

She planned a gap year after high school, to travel, but the pandemic derailed that ambition.

So, Keene State became her gap experience, she said. She enrolled with a focus on studio art, but soon discovered SPDI on the college website and found it to be “the perfect fit for me.”

“Actually,” she confessed, “it has exceeded all my expectations. The program has been surprising, how hands-on it is, its focus on real-life applications in the manufacturing process.”

Seeing a project through from ideation to manufacturing and working closely with Cambiar and project construction consultant Steve Horton was eye-opening for Chai.

“We looked at functional requirements; different things the shelter might need; we called shelters in other college towns, mostly directors, and asked what they saw for issues. Privacy was a big one.”

Horton has worked previously with Keene State students, though primarily in workplace safety. Cambiar has partnered with sociology professor Therese Seibert and her students, who worked shifts at the shelter, did intake work, and delivered researched, solution-based presentations, among other things.

“This,” Cambiar said, “was the first time we did something with a manufacturing twist, and it has been great.”

“We have loved working with the college,” Cambiar added. “The students get a chance to participate in something very real, and in this case that can be eye opening. Homeless people are real human beings. They each have a story, a reason they are in this predicament. It’s good to be reminded of that.”

Next semester, Chai will study at ELISAVA, a prominent school of design in Barcelona, Spain. Originally, she said, she planned to study Spanish in Seville, but a last-minute discussion with her advisers led to a different “amazing opportunity” in Spain’s cosmopolitan, culturally rich coastal city.

As she sees it, another perfect fit.

Learn more about SPDI at Keene State.

Visit the Keene State campus and tour the Technology, Design, and Safety (TDS) Center, home to the SPDI program.

For Tyler Mignano and his SPDI classmates, the project has been a beginning-to-end real-world expereince.
For Tyler Mignano and his SPDI classmates, the project has been a beginning-to-end real-world expereince.

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