Student Project Provides Young Girl and Family with Ride of a Lifetime

Tuesday, May 02, 2023
Briggs Fultz stands in the middle of Meela in her wagon alongside her family.

Briggs Fultz, a mechanical engineering major, designed and fabricated the lavender off-road hiking wagon for the family of an 8-year-old girl, Meela, with a genetic condition that limits her mobility.

Adrenaline coursed through Briggs Fultz's veins. If he closed his eyes, he could almost feel the breeze tousling his hair and the sunshine warming his face. The tires beneath him bounded smoothly over the rough terrain on his imaginary trail, and the seat molded comfortably around his back. He inhaled deeply the sweet smell of the great outdoors. 

When he opened his eyes, the Rose-Hulman junior saw not the sunshine, but the fluorescent lighting of the Kremer Innovation Center. He inhaled a whiff of motor oil and soldering irons instead of the piney scent of the trail. Grinning, he hopped off the bright purple contraption, more than satisfied with his mental test run.

Fultz, a mechanical engineering major from Monticello, Illinois, designed and fabricated the lavender off-road hiking wagon for the family of an 8-year-old girl, Meela, from the Indianapolis area with a genetic condition that limits her mobility. The family loves outdoor adventure activities, including hiking, and Fultz's device will make it easier for Meela to participate in the activities she loves.

"I hope they're going to be incredibly happy with it," Fultz said. "It really means a lot to me to have helped them continue to do the things they love in a way that makes it easier and more accessible for them."

The device functions similarly to a rickshaw, requiring no input from the rider. The design allows an adult to pull the rider, using the driver's momentum and with minimal strain to the driver's back. At the end of the hike, the family can easily disassemble the device so that it can be transported in the back of a car.

The project fulfills a need for the family and provides them with a unique product unlike anything available for purchase. 

“It’s going to take a lot of the weight off of our shoulders – figuratively and literally,” said Tressie Hansen, Meela’s mother. “That mental anguish of knowing that I’m not going to be able to carry her forever is kind of gone. That’s a life-altering thing.”

Fultz connected with the family through the Make It Happen program, which enables Rose-Hulman students to complete projects for families in need. Meela’s father, Rose-Hulman alum Adam “Thor” Geisler (ME, 2012), remembered design projects his peers had completed and hoped that current students could make the same difference in his family.

“When we were out hiking one night, I had the thought of ‘Man, I have all these resources back at my alma mater, why not reach out?’” Geisler said.

The project was especially meaningful for Fultz, who shares the family's passion for outdoor activities such as hiking and mountain biking. Fultz started mountain biking at eight years old and is the founding president of Rose-Hulman's Mountain Biking Club.

"To feel like I already had that common ground and that base understanding of what needed to happen really helped me in the design process," Fultz explained. "It meant a lot more to me to help them with something they loved because I understand how being outside can make somebody feel."

Fultz began his project early in the fall 2022 quarter, meeting with the family to discuss their needs both in-person and virtually. He began designing SolidWorks models of a durable device to help the girl continue to feel the wind in her hair. 

"The design process is definitely the biggest thing that I've learned at Rose that has directly impacted this project," Fultz said. "Growing up, when I worked on projects, I just sketched something out on paper and just went for it. Here, I've learned to design it fully and make templates and make sure everything is going to work mathematically before starting the fabrication steps."

Fultz applied his previous metalwork experience to the project, welding the device with galvanized conduit pipe. The final product, which took about 11 weeks to complete, includes an adjustable seat to accommodate the girl as she grows.  The optional waistbelt for the driver is also adjustable to fit a range of heights and sizes. Fultz, familiar with the types of terrain the device needed to handle, devised an independently suspended seat system with adjustable shock to allow the wagon to handle a variety of terrain and rider weights. 

In addition to the technical elements, Fultz added a few special elements to fit the girl's personality, including her name scripted across the rider footrest and a coating of shiny purple paint, the girl's favorite color.

Geisler expressed amazement at the quality of Fultz’s work and at the support from his alma mater.

“I came to this school because it was No. 1,” Geisler said. “I left feeling better educated and ready for the world, but I had no idea how great that network was. It makes me feel good about the community I’m a part of.” 

Fultz, too, is grateful that Rose connected him to the family. "I am super glad I go to a school that not only encourages us to do these things but supports us and provides us with the tools that allow us to pull stuff like this off at a relatively young age," he said. "It's one of the things I had hoped for when I came to Rose, and I'm so happy and excited that that's exactly what it's come to."

The project blazes the trail for Fultz's aspirations to own an engineering design firm specializing in human-harmonious devices.

"I've always liked the idea of taking the mechanical aspects of the world and combining them with the biological aspects of life and seeing where you can go with that," Fultz explained.

For one family, this combination enables an 8-year-old girl to do what she loves, allowing her to feel the wind tousling her hair and the sun warming her face as she glides over the terrain on family hikes.

“We’ll be able to get outdoors more and spend more time together as a family,” Geisler said.

Fultz smiled. "I hope they have as much fun using it as I did building it," he said. "I'm just so glad to have gotten to know them and to have been a part in helping them continue to do what they love."