Published September 22, 2017
Austin Powers and Caleb Walters did more than just engineer something spectacular — they created something that deeply impacts someone’s life.
For Powers and Walters, both mechanical engineering students who graduated this past May, what started as a way to get three credit hours turned into a major project they became passionate about — making an accessible tricycle for former UB staff member Curtis Senf that has become known as “Curt’s Trike.”
Several years ago, Senf got into a serious biking accident on his way to his job as a senior research technician at the Center for Research and Education in Special Environments on UB’s South Campus. He broke his neck and experienced some paralysis from the neck down.
“I could barely move,” Senf recalls. “But, I worked my way back. I can walk now, but I can’t ride a two-wheeler any more. Bike riding has always been a passion of mine, so I got ahold of Dr. Mollendorf to see if he could build one for me.”
Joseph Mollendorf, SUNY Distinguished Teaching Professor in the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering and director of the Engineering Machine Shop, has been making devices for persons with disabilities since receiving a grant from the National Science Foundation about 30 years ago. He says he was inspired to apply for the grant after designing a car brake for a colleague’s friend who had cerebral palsy and whose foot shook when he drove.
“I brought students together to build a device with a damper on it so it would even out the vibrations from his foot,” Mollendorf recalls. “This got me excited about using engineering to help people individually. I realized I couldn’t do it without outside funding, so I applied for the grant.”
He estimates that over the years he and his students have taken on 500 or 600 projects, “and they’re everything you can imagine,” he says.
Although that grant’s funding cycle of 20-plus years has ended, he has continued to supervise senior design projects each semester that focus on everyday devices for people with disabilities. “Students like it because they’re helping people and using their engineering skills,” he says.
The Curt’s Trike project was funded with the stipend Mollendorf received from his recent promotion to the rank of SUNY Distinguished Teaching Professor. “What could be better than helping a person to live their life and do what they want to do?” he asks.
For the trike project, Senf used his own tools and worked with Walters, Powers and machine shop staff members William Macy, Gary Olson and Xinnan (Simon) Peng to build the device.
“I used to work on bikes and maintenance, so I had a good idea about the parts that needed to be bought and what I thought would work well for my condition,” Senf says. “Between myself, Dr. Mollendorf, Austin, Caleb and the machine shop staff, we worked together and accomplished building the trike.”
Adds Mollendorf: “Everyone deserves a lot of credit for this. Austin and Caleb are excellent students with good hearts.”
While most tricycles have two wheels in the back and one in the front, the designers of Curt’s Trike took a different approach. Senf wanted to ride the tricycle while in a reclining position, and that, along with the location of his center mass, prompted the unique design. “Having two wheels in front and one in the back equals a more stable trike,” Powers says.
Senf says riding the trike has given him “a certain amount of freedom. I can get up to 12 miles an hour. Because I’m low to the ground, it feels like 20 miles per hour,” he says. “It’s nice to get out there and see the world from a different perspective.
“It feels good to get my muscles moving and ride beside my wife, Melissa. Right now, we’ve been riding around the neighborhood, but when I get up to 10 miles we may consider packing the bike and exploring somewhere different,” he adds.
The project was an uplifting and touching learning experience for everyone involved. “Everybody wants to help other people deep down, and if you give them the opportunity, they will do it,” Mollendorf says. “At least that has been my experience.”
Walters says working on Curt’s Trike has been “an amazing experience and an excellent way to finish my engineering education.”
“Working on a project like this shows you that all of the long nights and stressful times while studying formulas and ideas that seem somewhat disconnected and unmanageable have a purpose,” he says. “It gave me the opportunity to take all that I have learned and use it to make a positive impact on someone’s life, and I couldn’t be more thankful.”
Powers agrees the project has been “a great culmination of our college careers as engineering majors.”
“It was nice to have the freedom we were given, but the help and advice from the machine shop staff was necessary to continue steering us in the right direction. Although there were quite a few frustrating moments (with delayed parts and parts that didn’t fit), seeing Melissa’s reaction to Curt riding the finished trike was priceless,” he says. “I don’t think I’ll ever forget it, and I’m very grateful to have had this opportunity.”
Senf says he can’t thank those involved in the project enough for what they have given him. “They went above and beyond to get me back on the road again,” he says.
He then offers this heart-felt message to students: “Give back to society, and make the world a better place if you can.”
I would suggest an antenna with a flag. I can imagine that some cars, and especially trucks and SUVs, can't see the low trike.
It was great they did this, but these trikes already exist; they are called tadpole trikes. I have one due to similar problems also caused by a broken neck. Keep riding.