A boy, a bicycle, a future

UI students create a device to help a Cedar Rapids boy born without his right arm ride a bike.


The Daily Iowan; Photos by Lily

Jonny Cole rides his bike during Senior Design Day for the College of Engineering in the IMU on April 28. UI Visiting Assistant Professor Douglas Cole and 8-year-old Jonny worked with UI engineering seniors Kylie Hershberger, Mitchell Miller, Alicia Truka, and Nathaniel Witt on designing and 3D printing an adaptive device for Jonny’s bike. (The Daily Iowan/ Lily Smith)

Next time you see a trail of flame on the sidewalks around campus, it just might be Jonny Cole riding by on his bicycle.
Born without most of his right arm, the 8-year-old struggled to successfully ride his red bicycle, complete with a Spiderman bell. His arm’s development was stunted due to amniotic band syndrome, a birth defect caused when amniotic sac tissues wrap around a baby’s joints and cut off circulation.

Jonny’s father, Douglas Cole, a University of Iowa visiting assistant professor and recent UI Ph.D. graduate in linguistics, was determined to find a way for Jonny to join his family on bike rides around their Cedar Rapids neighborhood. Cole approached people in the UI College of Engineering machine shop in search of experts who could create an adaptive device for Jonny’s bike.

From there, Cole was directed to the UI Biomedical Engineering Department, where undergraduates spend two semesters of their final year as Hawkeyes working on design projects. UI students Mitchell Miller, Kylie Hershberger, Nate Witt, and Alicia Truka each listed Jonny’s project — later dubbed “Jonny and the Flamethrowers” — as their No. 1 choice.

When he approached the UI, Cole, then a student, said he was hoping he could find the right group of people with the time to work on his son’s project. He said he found just that in the four students.

“They’ve really done an amazing job of building a relationship with him and teaching him about the design process,” he said.

The students met with Jonny on a regular basis and watched him come out of his shell more and more with each meeting.

“He’s just so much happier and more confident and comfortable, and it’s made it really great to see him get to that point,” Hershberger said. “We have so much fun with him every week. We play tag, we play hide-and-seek … It’s been really fun to get him riding his bike.”

Hershberger said she knew she wanted to do work on medical device design prior to the project, and it has only strengthened her resolve to make this her career.

“This has just really showed me that I’m on the right track, that I’m doing the right thing for me,” she said.

Throughout the design process, Jonny stayed involved and guided the students’ decisions. The students eventually found the perfect fit for Jonny’s device, a combination of metal and plastic with light padding lining the inside of the cup. It attaches to the bike’s handlebars, and Jonny can place his arm inside without attaching the device to his body.

Jonny said he is excited to introduce his classmates to his new college friends and demonstrate the device.

“You can just get exercise and have fun at the same time,” he said.

Cole remained enthusiastic about the possibilities ahead of his son with the help of his new biomedical device.

“There’s so many times where you just dream of taking everyone on a family bike ride … or going for a run where he’s riding his bike alongside me,” he said. “Now, this is looking like it’s going to be a possibility.”

Once he gets the training wheels off, Jonny looks forward to riding his bike like a true Iowan.

“We’re going to do …” Jonny trailed off, but his father finished his thoughts for him.

“RAGBRAI?” Cole asked. Jonny gave an affirmative nod as Cole assured his son: “Some day.”

Facebook Comments