From the time they were toddlers, it was almost a given that Tucker Fritz and Alex White would someday be engineers/builders of some sort. The two Lenoir City friends grew up with engineering relatives and mentors — Fritz's grandfather, Bill Harris and White's father. Both possessed an inherent penchant for figuring out how to make something work.
Neither can say which of those things influenced them more. Something gave them a good start.
"I was always tearing things apart to see how they worked," Fritz said.
The same was true for White.
"Everything I got, I would tear apart and put back together," White said. "I was always trying to build something — Legos, Lincoln logs and duct tape were my favorite toys," he said.
"A lot of guys don't have the hands-on experience we had," White said. "Half of them go into machine shop and don't know how to use the tools."
Both graduated from Lenoir City High School and pursued engineering degrees at Tennessee Tech University. And recently, they had an opportunity to work together on a project that will help a handicapped kayaker, Michael Boyd.
Boyd, a spinal chord injury victim from Cookeville, approached TTU asking for help with a problem. He enjoys kayaking, but because he was paralyzed from the waist down, he needed a way to be able to get his kayak into the water.
"I would like to see people get off the couch and into paddling,” Boyd said. "I used to do everything — hang gliding, scuba diving, rock climbing, hiking trails, swimming, biking, triathlons."
Boyd presented his dream of getting people with handicaps into paddling at the beginning of the semester.
Fritz and White worked on a team of six mechanical engineers at TTU that set out to solve the problem for Boyd. The students were part of a mechanical engineering capstone design course. All graduating seniors are required to go through a capstone design course, a simulation of the types of projects they would face in the industry as engineers.
The request was just the sort of challenge that always captivated Fritz and White. "He needed a cheaper design to get into his kayak," Fritz said.
The project would have implications beyond Boyd.
"We started researching and found there were 8,800 disabled people age 15-64 in Putnam County," Fritz said. "We started to throw out ideas and somebody came up with the idea of a U-shaped pontoon boat."
The biggest problem, the two said, was to find funding for the project.
“Some big companies offer funding for projects, but ours was a nonprofit,” Fritz said.
“Figuring out the funding was the biggest challenge,” White said. “Finding a place big enough to work was another challenge.”
The team raised $2,500 for the project. Some $2,000 came from a Tech Ready fund to promote tourism.
"Cookeville has 40 lakes in a 30-mile radius," Fritz said. "They can take people out to paddle."
A fellow student had a pontoon boat that was used for the project. The team made the frame for the device.
"We don't know where the idea of the pontoon came from, but we all worked together on the design," Fritz said. "We tried to make it efficient and simple."
The design involved a lift operated by a 3,000-pound electric winch. And, although the heavy rail steel required counterweights to be added, the mission was a success. "We accomplished what we needed to accomplish, but we didn't have time to put the finishing touches on it," White said.
The professor decided to hold the project another year and let another class refine the design. "Most capstone design classes have a whole year long to do a project," Fritz said.
Fritz graduated with an engineering degree in nuclear engineering and is set to start a new job in January at B&W Y-12 National Security Complex. He interned there for three years, rotating programs every couple of months.
White has another semester to complete before he graduates.
The two friends said they learned a lot from the capstone project and both enjoyed working on something to help those with disabilities overcome them. They worked together earlier on a project for children with special needs.
"I can see myself doing this," Fritz said. "I enjoyed seeing it affect somebody in a positive way."
Boyd said he was pleased with what the team accomplished. "They did a really good job with the design and i can see it is something doable," he said. "Some of them worked 12 hours a day on it."