Wanda Roche used to ride her bicycle over mountain passes.
Her life changed in 2013 when a collision with another bicyclist during a tour threw her into a ravine and paralyzed her from the chest down.
She bought a wheelchair that allows her to exercise her upper body. But with the hills around her Fort Collins home, she couldn’t safely brake or turn.
Late last summer, she called the Walter Scott, Jr. College of Engineering. Now, with a little help from some newly graduated mechanical engineering students, she’s ready to face the hills in her neighborhood.
Roche showed up at Moby Arena on graduation day, May 17, to pick up her newly modified wheelchair and to congratulate the graduating seniors who helped her (see the video).
The mechanical engineering graduates – Shura Al Maawali, Younis Al Masoudi, Billy Anthony and Drew Caldwell – took on the project with support from Lab Support Engineer Steve Johnson, redesigning the wheelchair to allow for better braking and steering.
“I live in the hilliest neighborhood in Fort Collins. I would grind up these hills and be scared to come down,” said Roche, who is 62. “These kids have worked hard.”
The chair came with a set of bars designed to propel it forward over rough ground using a ratcheting mechanism. One of the bars has a bicycle brake handle, which attaches to two bicycle brakes on the wheels for slowing/stopping the chair. The other bar has a built-in mechanism that allows the front wheel to be steered by turning the bar left and right. The students designed a cable-pulley system and redesigned the brakes to improve handling.
Now going down hills won’t be so hard. After the students’ adjustments, she can steer and compensate for the curve of the road.
Roche said she had multiple meetings with the students at her home and in their labs.
“When we first got together, they tried the chair and would go to stick their feet down and I said, ‘Cheaters! I can’t do that,’” said Roche with a laugh. “They tried compassionately to understand. I felt when they left here that they really grasped the challenges that I had with that chair.”
In addition to the bar modifications, the students added a harness. Anthony Marchese, associate dean of Academic and Student Affairs and faculty advisor, also bought her a helmet and gloves.
The students showed off their design to Roche and their friends and families before lining up for graduation.
“It is always a great thing to make others’ lives better, and I hope Wanda likes it,” said Al Masoudi, who is planning to return to Oman after graduation to find a job in the oil and gas industry. “I think that the manufacturing experience that has been done on this project will be helpful in my future career.”
Johnson said the project was a great learning experience for the students who learned to design to the needs of the consumer, rather than the manufacturer’s specifications.
“The design process breaks down fast,” Johnson said. “First you have to come up with a bunch of solutions, see what’s working and what’s not and help your customer understand what you’re trying to do. It’s a lot more difficult.”
Roche said she’s anxious to try her redesigned chair.
“I’ve been looking for a way to get some exercise – I’m used to challenging myself,” she said. “I am so blessed to have such a wonderful group of people working on this for me.”