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Engineering students design and fabricate wooden bicycles, partner with local shop

University of Delaware students in the sophomore level mechanical engineering course Statics, the study of forces acting on a system at rest, designed and fabricated wooden bicycles that would have made Archimedes proud.

In partnership with Wooden Wheels Service & Repair, a bike shop located in Newark, Delaware, students were tasked with creating functional bike frames made entirely out of wood.

This hands-on project, which occurred during the fall semester, before the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic made social distancing a necessity, was the brainchild of Jenni Buckley, an associate professor of mechanical engineering. Buckley has been recognized nationally for her teaching methods and was named a member of the American Society for Engineering Education’s “20 Under 40” in 2018.

“Most programs at other universities teach Statics as a ‘theory-only’ course,” said Buckley. “We teach the theory here, too, but we also give the students the opportunity to apply what they learned in real-world design situations.”

Wooden Wheels was an ideal partner for the project. Buckley, a former competitive cyclist, is a long-time customer of the shop.

“Jenni was talking about this wooden bike project, and we’re Wooden Wheels, so it all just made sense,” said Wooden Wheels co-owner Robbie Downward. The winning bike, as determined by a panel of judges, will be displayed at the Wooden Wheels shop.

The 160 students in the course, working in teams of four, consulted with the owners of Wooden Wheels on their bike frame designs and then utilized the Design Studio in Spencer Lab to make the frames. In the Design Studio, a nationally recognized academic makerspace dedicated to undergraduate engineering education, students were assisted by a team of teaching assistants, upperclassmen engineering students.

Each team was given a predefined amount of wood and components, and they applied the engineering theory that they had learned in class to determine the risk of structural failure for their bike frames.

“We had to keep in mind the internal forces,” said student Sarah Ott. “If you apply a force on the seat and two forces at each wheel, you have to make sure the inside doesn’t cave in or just break in half while you’re on the bike.”

The students used computer-aided design, computer numerical control machines and more to bring their designs to life.

Jessica Betz, an honors mechanical engineering student, and her teammates were initially skeptical about whether their bike would really hold a person’s weight. “As we kept going and making adjustments and reinforcements, it really helped us solidify what we were learning in the classroom by actually building it,” said Betz.

Many of the students’ initial designs required adjustments. After all, design and fabrication are iterative processes.

“Students had to make on-the-fly adjustments, which is what engineers are supposed to do,” said Buckley.

By working in teams, students could combine their strengths.

“Some students have more math experience and less prototyping experience, and vice versa,” said Buckley. “A project like this levels the playing field and shows students that different skills are valuable. Through teamwork, students come to appreciate that there is room for everybody.”

To close the semester, students showed off their bikes to a team of judges in UD’s new MakerGym, a transdisciplinary makerspace. Some students even opted to ride their bikes in the parking lot.

Brooks Twilley, operations manager of the MakerGym, was one of the judges for the students’ bicycles. Twilley predicts that soon, the MakerGym will be the place where students can generate new ideas and flesh them out.

“One of the founding principles of this place is community, and people coming together hopefully from beyond just one discipline to bring an idea to life,” he said.

| Photo by Evan Krape |

Design Building on Theory – With Bikes