The client: A furry, 4-year-old Australian shepherd mix with a hankering for hot dogs and little ability to communicate beyond a bark.
The assignment for a group of UW-Madison students: Find a way for this two-legged dog to walk more easily.
An introductory engineering design course that has been around since the 1990s connects people (or pets) who have real-life problems with College of Engineering students assigned to solve them, according to lecturer Katie Kalscheur.
That’s how Madison residents Pete and Pat Sammataro found themselves on UW-Madison’s campus in early September introducing a group of first-year engineering students to their dog, Louie.
Louie — short for Lt. Dan, a character in the 1994 film “Forrest Gump” — was born without his front legs and destined to be euthanized until the niece of a friend of the Sammataros saved him. When the couple adopted Louie in 2016, they saw how he copes with his limited mobility, by either hopping on his back legs or scooting along, chest low to the ground.
Pat longed for Louie to venture beyond the white picket fence surrounding their yard and take a walk in their Near West Side neighborhood.
She cringed whenever she saw Louie heave himself forward, dragging the nubs that make up his front legs across the concrete.
The Sammataros tried a commercially-produced cart for Louie, but the device was unstable with him on it, sending him somersaulting over the two wheels.
These types of problems are the ones that Kalscheur wants to hear about.
“This class isn’t possible without the community,” Kalscheur said. “It makes such a difference when there’s a real client with a need that can’t be met by products currently on the market. Students are invested in coming up with a real solution.”
Freshmen aren’t on the engineering campus as often as they might expect because they’re slogging through calculus, chemistry and other general education requirements, she said. The design practicum course gets students engaged in their field of study early, giving them a taste of what’s to come. Research also shows this type of immersive learning experience increases retention among women and underrepresented minority groups in a discipline that is dominated by white men.
“I don’t think all engineering schools have this,” Kalscheur said of the course. “It gives students a feel for what working on a team and having a real client is like.”
Another student group in Kalscheur’s section this fall teamed up with the Portage School District where visually impaired students wanted to run track without someone else guiding them. They devised a sensor that vibrates and makes sounds based on where a runner is located along the track.
The group of seven students assigned to Louie researched other products on the marketplace and began brainstorming ideas. They consulted with others at Makerspace, a largely student-staffed place on campus for engineers to help each other on projects and take advantage of university resources, including a 3-D printer.
Students cycled through several prototypes for Louie. One version had a 3-D cast, which the dog didn’t like.
The group even created a back-up design, a scooter with guardrails, in the last week of the semester after Louie made “a bit of a scene” at Makerspace when he tried on one of the students’ prototypes, said UW-Madison freshman Jessica Nienhaus, one of the students in the group.
Nienhaus, of Racine, said the project was challenging because their client couldn’t explain why a particular design didn’t work, but she found it to be rewarding in a way that her high school projects catering to fictional clients were not.
The students’ final design modified the Sammataro’s existing cart, adjusting its height to fit Louie’s and adding small wheels in the front and back for stability.
The Sammataros received Louie’s cart earlier this month and they roll it out a couple of times each week to train him on his new set of wheels. They know that Louie learning to trust the cart to do what he has done on his own for four years won’t happen overnight.
So the Sammataros keep trying, keep hoping for the day when they can take Louie for a walk and keep coaxing him along with hot dogs.