The first tricycle was simple: Pedals were removed and a seat put in so children with cerebral palsy could dangle their legs and walk on their toes.

The second trike evolved over 18 months. The result is bright red with streamers and features leg braces that provide support while its young riders work their gluteal and hip extensor muscles. As they move through their neighborhoods, many on a trike for the first time, their able-bodied friends are envious. It looks - and is - fun.The trike is also proof that magic happens when mechanical engineering meets personal need. Ergonomics, at least at the University of Utah, has taken on a very human heart.

The trike is just one example of projects being designed by mechanical engineering students to make life easier for people who are elderly or disabled. They've built a wheelchair that allows elderly people to use their strong quadripeds to move. Another wheelchair has a lift that provides support as people sit down and stand up.

Students are trying to solve a number of problems: What can they design so that older people who have trouble plugging a cord in can hold onto the plug? Can they make a jar opener that takes one hand, for people who have had a stroke?

They're working on devices to help people climb stairs, as well as an "exoskeleton," a sort of brace that supports the upper body when the wearer must bend over.

The U.'s ergonomics course, taught by Donald Bloswick, used to focus on making things easier and safer in the workplace. Now it has a community-service component too. Projects are designed to help children and adults who are disabled in some way. The focus carries over into the department's Capstone Design Course for senior undergraduates, where Robert Roemer's students also work on projects to help people in need.

The students love the new emphasis, Bloswick said, because "a person interacts with what they design."

"It's a lot more interesting to think I'm helping people," said Ben Shirley, a graduate student.

Eric King agrees. When he sees people having trouble with a task, his brain kicks in. "I think, maybe I can design something to make it easier. It's a different way of seeing things."

Bloswick has long been interested in how machines help people. Part of his concern, he said, came from his wife who is a social worker specializing in geriatrics. She saw practical - and human - applications for his work.

The trike started when Dr. Judith Gooch approached Bloswick with a need for something to help young cerebral palsy patients exercise their muscles and have fun at the same time. He presented it to master's-degree students, and Jeff Bean had the idea for the trike.

It became a group project that brought in another professor, Don Brown, and student Glade Howell, who built it. They conceptualized and conducted preliminary tests and modifications. King did the final tests on the trike, taking it to children with cerebral palsy.

King and Shirley designed the lift chair, testing it at a local care center.

Ergonomics is now tied to the Bennion Community Service Center on campus. Bloswick was named the Borchard-Bennion fellow and uses the grant that went with the fellowship to purchase the materials students need in their people-oriented designs.

The university has a patent pending on the trike, so the designs may eventually yield financial rewards. In the meantime, everyone seems happy with the knowledge that they're reaching out to others.

They're also looking for new needs they can wrap their fertile minds around. And Bloswick welcomes suggestions.

He can be reached at 581-4163.