Academic journal article Science Scope

Sitting around Designing Chairs

Academic journal article Science Scope

Sitting around Designing Chairs

Article excerpt

You may not be a couch potato, but most of us have a favorite chair--perhaps easily identified by its worn and possibly scruffy appearance. What is it that makes a favorite chair a favorite chair? Back and leg support? Arm rests? Most importantly, everything needs to fit you just right. Fitting one person just right, of course, may mean that another person would not find that chair especially comfortable--we are all different sizes.

For this reason, the engineers who design chairs must take into account the ergonomics of how chairs and humans (of different sizes) interact. Ergonomics is the "application of what we know about people, their abilities, characteristics, and limitations to the design of equipment they use, environments in which they function, and jobs they perform" (Human Factors and Ergonomic Society). Each day, you likely sit in a variety of chairs--office chairs, stools at a counter, dining room chairs, folding chairs, possibly even a beanbag chair. Outdoors, you may sit on lawn chairs, park benches, or chaise lounges. Engineers must design these chairs, used for different purposes, with different criteria in mind. A chair is usually defined as an individual seat raised above the ground, usually with a back, and often with arms.


In this 5E-learning-cycle lesson, using newspaper and tape, students design and build a chair that is capable of supporting their weight. Students must also consider the ergonomics of the chair they design so that it is dimensioned appropriately for typical middle-level students. Teachers could modify this activity to meet (MS-ETS1-4) of the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), which state: "a solution needs to be tested and then modified on the basis of the test results in order to improve it" (NGSS Lead States 2013). Because the main science content of this lesson involves balanced forces (the downward force of a person's weight must be supported by an equal and opposite force exerted by the chair in order to keep the person from breaking the chair, Goldilocks style), questions and tasks could be added to match (PS2.A: Forces and Motion).


Unless we are hiking or camping, most of us no longer sit on rocks. Humans have long been sitting on objects to get off the cold, damp floor or ground. Most early "chairs" were some type of bench or three-legged stool that focused on function. Our knowledge of ancient chairs mostly comes from art depictions or relics found in tombs, but it seems that people have been sitting on designed objects since the time of ancient civilizations.

Until the 1500s, only powerful or wealthy people sat in chairs; all others stood or, at best, sat on stools or benches. Thus, chairs were mostly designed to be large and highly decorated. We still see vestiges of this "chair power" in our language--the head of a committee or group is the chair and the best violinist in an orchestra holds the first chair. Later, chairs became less grand and more practical so that during the Victorian Era, chairs were produced in sets for the first time (The Herald 2013).

While chairs likely seem commonplace and ordinary--essentially just a place for people to sit--they also represent the culture from which they come. One can deduce from early chairs much of what might be important to a culture, what materials were available, how the chairs were to be used, and their preferences in artistic expression. This importance of chairs to our culture is reinforced by Jessica Frazier of the Denver Art Museum, who notes that nearly all interior designers have made at least one chair. She notes, "Chairs combine form and function in a way that is easy for consumers to digest but incredibly difficult for designers to perfect inasmuch as they encompass many of the challenges of design--engineering, material choice, production method, style, and functionality--in one small package" (2012). Therefore, the topic of chairs makes an ideal choice for an everyday engineering activity. …

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