Mechanical Engineering Seniors Create a Special Bike for a Special Girl

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Nine-year-old Bella Cates will be able to enjoy summer alongside her friends, thanks to a custom-made bicycle designed and fabricated by five mechanical engineering students as part of a senior-year capstone project.

Who doesn’t remember their first bike?

That definitely will be the case for Bella Cates, thanks to a specially designed bicycle by five mechanical engineering students as part of a senior-year project.

Bella is a 9-year-old who has a mild form of Cerebral Palsy. The right side of her body is weak and requires a brace on her right leg for support. This physical challenge affects her ability to ride comfortably a conventional bicycle.

“As a mom, it breaks your heart when you see your child trying to keep up with her friends,” says Bella’s mother Marcie Cates. “She loves to play outside, and she has that fire to keep up. Now she’s be able to.”

Minutes after receiving the bicycle this spring, Bella was pedaling alongside her twin sister, Lizzy, and other friends in her neighborhood within Zionsville, Ind.

“Seeing her enjoy (the bike) makes us feel really good,” says design team member Tianhong (Tina) Han of Beijing, China.

Nathanael Coulter of Clinton, Ind., adds, “This was a labor of love for us. This wasn’t just a project that we were working on to get a grade. This was going to be something special that could give Bella enjoyment for years to come.”

Other members of the project development team were Michel Farhat of Houston, Texas; Joshua Henning of Springfield, Ill.; and Mark Stamper of Terre Haute, Ind. The project’s faculty advisor was Ashley Bernal, associate professor of mechanical engineering.

Everything on the bicycle was custom-made to ensure functionality for Bella. The chain was hidden within the metal frame – from the front pedals to the rear wheels – and the placement of the handlebars and handbrakes were adjusted for Bella’s needs. The bicycle’s three-wheeled design provides stability and its seat can be adjusted as she gets older.

And, Bella selected the bicycle’s aqua blue color – her mother’s favorite color.

“Bella is excited about the safety, comfort and color of her new bike. Last summer, after numerous falls off traditional bikes with training wheels, Bella became discouraged to ride a bike and sought other models to keep up with her friends. She will now be able to ride her bike alongside her friends,” says Marcie. “The entire experience has been memorable for our family.”

Bella’s father, Mike Cates once attended Rose-Hulman and is a member of a group of central Indiana business, corporate and government officials who are associated with the institute. When informed about some of the projects students that completed for students with physical challenges, Mike thought about the difficulties his family was having in finding a bicycle suitable and safe for his daughter.

The “Bike for Bella” project was born and the five students collaborated with Bella and her father throughout this school year to fabricate the bike. The family made several trips to campus on Monday nights to take measurements and exchange design ideas. Wearing a hard hat and safety glasses were one of Bella’s favorite parts of the experience.

Marcie was so touched by the newly constructed bicycle that she included it in a children’s book, Grit, Not Grits, she is co-writing. The book encourages children of all physical abilities to be friends and inclusive of one another. It is scheduled for release late this summer. The Rose-Hulman students are honored the bicycle will be featured in the children’s book.

As for the students’ grade on the project, Bella gave the bike a thumbs up signal, with a broad smile on her face, after taking it for a quick spin on a sidewalk in her neighborhood. 

“That smile is all that matters. We satisfied her and that was our goal throughout this project,” says Farhat.