Story by Anne Manning. Video by Ron Bend. Photos by John Eisele.
Published July 8, 2020

Student engineers finish swing project to bring joy to Fort Collins man with autism

Trying his first few leg-pumps on his brand-new swing, Dylan Bush’s face said it all.

The closed-eyed joy of Bush, a Fort Collins man with autism, was well worth the Herculean efforts by Colorado State University engineering students over the last few weeks to complete the custom-designed and built swing. It’s now permanently installed in Bush’s mother and stepfather’s front yard, punctuating a year’s worth of work for the students, and the end of a very unusual final semester.

Earlier this spring, CSU senior engineering students were all in the throes of capstone projects known as Senior Design, usually showcased publicly during Engineering Days. Projects typically range across the breadth of engineering education CSU offers – from liquid-propulsion rockets to exoskeletons for dogs. But when the COVID-19 pandemic abruptly sent most students away from campus in March to finish the semester online, the physical-build aspect of most senior design projects this year was shuttered. Students were graded on the merits of their work without being required to complete their builds.

Dylan Bush tests out his new swing while the students who just finished installing it, Renee Farnes and Nick Krekeler, watch.

The three members of the mechanical engineering swing project team, though, found a way to see their project through. And their desire to finish what they’d started went well beyond an academic exercise.

“One of the biggest things that drew us to this project was how we could see the immediate impact,” said student engineer Paige Floyd. “There was this specific client in need, we were working with a loving family, and we would be able to see a final product that could be installed and used. That was very motivating for us.”

So Floyd and teammates Renee Farnes and Nick Krekeler, with support from their department and college, fellow engineer friends and faculty advisers, received permission to wrap up the design, secure the materials and install the swing. They finished up on one of the hotter days of the year in early July, surrounded by Dylan’s family as well as members of the Poudre Fire Authority. The firefighters had heard the story of the students’ project and Dylan’s enthusiasm for both firetrucks and swings. To help celebrate the swing’s completion, they brought their truck over as a treat for Dylan, and also gave the students a hand placing the swing’s final beam.

Poudre Fire Authority firefighters dropped by the last day of swing installation to help place the final beam, and celebrate the completion of the project.

Request from the community

The students first connected with Dylan’s family through Genevieve Marmaduke, a case manager at Foothills Gateway, an organization that provides special-needs services for local families. Marmaduke had inquired with the Walter Scott, Jr. College of Engineering about possibly launching an engineering project for 27-year-old Dylan, whose favorite sensory activity is swinging, but who cannot use most public swings due to his adult size and weight.

The students took on the swing as a final project for their mechanical engineering degree program. Starting last August, they spent the better part of a year working with the family to make sure the swing would be perfect for Dylan’s needs.

Early on, they toyed with a rather complex cylindrical ball-bearing design, but scrapped it midway through, opting instead for simple and elegant – bidirectional, with the ability to swing back and forth as well as spin with the simple unclick of a carabiner. They secured a seat large enough for Dylan’s 300-pound frame and double-checked their calculations and materials to make sure the swing would hold up to years of daily use.

swing project plan

Student engineers Renee Farnes, Paige Floyd and Nick Krekeler double-checked their calculations to ensure the swing will withstand years of daily use.

Holly Bush, Dylan’s mother, said she was grateful for the students’ professionalism and care throughout the project. She was pleasantly surprised when they told her they wanted to finish even though COVID-19 had disrupted their final semester; the students all graduated in May.

“It’s been lovely. They brought me cookies at Christmas. They are the most polite kids in the world, and they seemed so excited about the project,” she said. “When you have a child like Dylan, you always wish for other people to see them the way you see them … [The students] asked questions and seemed to want to be with him. It was just a really good feeling that they weren’t here just for themselves to get their project done. They seemed happy to be here and meet him and talk with us.”

students measure side of swing on ground

The CSU students and many volunteers worked several days in the hot sun to complete the swing project.

Marmaduke, who first met Dylan’s family through her previous position at an organization called Mosaic, said she had been learning about the vestibular input many people on the autism spectrum receive from activities like swinging. That’s what inspired her to go to CSU engineering with the idea for the swing project.

She described feeling “teary, and really excited” to see the project completed. “This is such a big deal to me and seems like such a huge undertaking. To think that so many people have been involved for an entire year, just for this one amazing person – it makes my heart sing.”