Engineering Design Team Helps Swimming Dream Come True

Friday, April 05, 2019
Kala in her swim device, student design team members

A team of engineering design students created a device to help three-year-old Kala Steiner learn to swim despite her physical limitations.

A big smile lights up Kala Steiner’s face as the three-year-old’s dad dips her slowly into the water. In an instant, she’s kicking her legs and splashing her hands. Kala is taking her first steps to learn to swim.

A lot of kids learn to swim at Kala’s age, but she faces some big challenges. Kala has cerebral palsy and autism, and spends most of her time in a wheelchair. Swimming, until today, has seemed like an unattainable goal.

But Kala’s father, Ryan Steiner, is not easily deterred. A self-described stay-at-home dad, Ryan wanted Kala to learn to swim, so he turned to students in Rose-Hulman’s new engineering design major for help.

Part of the allure of studying engineering design at Rose-Hulman is that students work on projects for real-world clients, such as Ryan and Kala, beginning their first year. Ryan’s call for help was a perfect challenge for first-year students Yiqing Li, Isabella Popoff and Carla Archuleta, along with sophomore Youhua Lu. The team met with Ryan and Kala, studied an unsuccessful swimming device Ryan had designed himself, and got busy designing and building something completely new.

“They asked lots of questions and they were very thorough,” Ryan says of his meetings with the students. “They were great.”

Design and construction of what the students call “Kala’s Floating Seat” went through several stages, including a couple of test runs in the Sports and Recreation Center swimming pool with Kala in the water. After about six weeks of design and modifications, the final version was ready for delivery on April 2, 2019.

“I think we’re all really proud of the work we put into this,” says Archuleta, a biomedical engineering major from Littleton, Colorado. She and the rest of the team presented their final product to Ryan and Kala in Myer’s Hall, where Engineering Design studios are located.

The name “Kala’s Floating Seat” is a bit of an understatement. The device actually allows Kala to do much more than just float. It allows her to lay forward on her stomach in a swimming position and kick her legs. It’s also designed to expand as Kala grows and gains weight. And, just for fun, the device includes four flashing colored lights on each of its corners.

“We call those ‘friend makers,’” Ryan says of the lights. “They always attract other kids in the pool, and she loves that.”

Ryan plans for Kala to use her device in the Special Olympics, which features a swimming event for swimmers using assistive devices. And, eventually, he hopes she will learn to swim without it.
For the team that put it together, Kala’s Floating Seat is a perfect example of why they wanted to become engineers in the first place.

“To think we had this opportunity in our freshman years is really amazing,” says Popoff, a biomedical engineering major from Terre Haute. “I’m actually getting to help someone in my community. It’s an amazing feeling.” 

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