Published August 24, 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 went from signing up to get three credit hours turned into a major project they became passionate about —making an accessible tricycle for Curtis Senf, which has become known as “Curt’s Trike.”
Several years ago, Senf got into a serious biking accident on his way to his job at the Center for Research Education and Special Environments on UB’s South Campus. He broke his neck, and was paralyzed from the neck down.
“I could barely move,” said Senf. “But, I worked my way back. I can walk now, but I can’t ride a two-wheeler anymore. Bike riding has always been a passion of mine, so I got a hold of Dr. Mollendorf to see if he could build one for me.”
Joseph Mollendorf, a professor in the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering and director of the Engineering Machine Shop, made this project possible using a stipend from his recent promotion to a SUNY Distinguished Teaching Professor. Mollendorf said, “What could be better than helping a person to live their life and do what they want to do.”
Mollendorf, who has been a professor at UB for 43 years, received a grant from the National Science Foundation 30 years ago to make devices for people with disabilities. He was inspired to apply for it after designing a car break for a colleague’s friend who had cerebral palsy, and whose foot would shake 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,” said Mollendorf.
He added, “I’m a pilot, so next he wanted to fly a plane! 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.”
While dozens of universities across the nation received this grant, UB created many more devices than the other schools. “Over the years, we took on 500 or 600 projects, and they’re everything you can imagine,” said Mollendorf.
Even after the grant finished, Mollendorf has continued to supervise senior design projects that focus on every-day devices for people with disabilities each semester. “Students like it because they’re helping people and using their engineering skills,” he said.
For the Trike Project, Senf brought his tools with him and worked with Walters, Powers and machine shop staff members William Macy, Gary Olson and Xinnan (Simon) Peng to create 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 said. “Between myself, Dr. Mollendorf, Austin, Caleb, and the machine shop staff, we worked together and accomplished building the trike.”
“Everyone deserves a lot of credit for this,” added Mollendorf. “Austin and Caleb are excellent students with good hearts.”
When asked about how it feels to ride the trike, Senf said, “Riding it has given me 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. It’s nice to get out there and see the world from a different perspective.”
He added, “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.”
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. At least that has been my experience,” said Mollendorf.
“Working on the Trike Project with the machine shop staff, Professor Mollendorf, and Curt and Melissa was an amazing experience, and an excellent way to finish my engineering education,” said Walters. “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. 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.”
“The project was a great culmination of our college careers as engineering majors,” said Powers. “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. I don't think I'll ever forget it, and I'm very grateful to have had this opportunity.”
“I can’t thank Dr. Mollendorf, the staff, Austin and Caleb enough for what they have given me. They went above and beyond to get me back on the road again,” said Senf.
Senf closed by saying that drivers should be more courteous on the road. He said, “Wearing a helmet while biking is essential, and everyone should learn CPR —these two things saved my life.”
As a message to students, he said, “Give back to society, and make the world a better place if you can.”