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ME buckys bionic runners team at prosthetics plus
March 22, 2024

Bucky’s Bionic Runners pass the baton

Written By: Caitlin Scott



Mechanical Engineering students Jamie Wolpert, Caroline Gillis, Logan Fitzpatrick, and Nicole Salata had a uniquely impactful task for their senior design capstone project. Their group, Bucky’s Bionic Runners, was asked to design a lightweight and comfortable prosthetic device that would allow Arcadia High School student Caden to compete with his cross country team. Caden is fully capable of peak athletic performance, but was born with a dramatically shortened left arm and no right arm. The Wisconsin Interscholastic Athletic Association (WIAA) rules restrict him from competing in track and field relays since he does not possess the grip abilities to hold and pass the baton.

Plaster molds of Caden's appendage helped the team create an appropriate prosthetic.
Plaster molds of Caden’s appendage helped the team create an appropriate prosthetic.

Gillis shared, “I think my whole group would agree that this project has never felt like a task on the “to-do list” that needs to be crossed off. We enjoy working on the project because the end goal is meaningful to both us and more importantly, Caden. Especially after meeting Caden and forming a relationship with him, he is the type of person that has such a positive outlook and drive that makes us want to deliver a great final deliverable for him that much more.”

Salata adds, “Working with prosthetics was one of the reasons I wanted to study engineering, so having the chance to work on this for our senior project is super interesting to me and a full-circle moment. I’ve really enjoyed seeing the direct impact we have been able to make on Caden’s life.”

A two phase project

Overall, the project was to create two prosthetics for Caden. The left side prosthetic is the one that will hold the baton and connect to his appendage and the right side will serve as a counterweight and help give Caden balance and momentum when running. The biggest challenge for the left side prosthetic was figuring out the baton holding mechanism and the best orientation and location of the mechanism with respect to the rest of the prosthetic. Much of this design was up to client preference and feedback from the many design iterations he was able to test out. 

ME buckys bionic runners
Client Caden tries on a prototype with the baton.

“The right side is much more complex and has required us to think back to some of our coursework to figure out solutions,” shared Wolpert. “Initially, we started to create a full arm for Caden that would swing at a shoulder joint that we were designing for him but after creating this prototype quickly and testing it, we realized that giving Caden an arm on the right side wasn’t actually the correct solution. Instead of giving Caden an arm so he could run how we do, we needed to go back to the mechanics of running to understand why arms are swinging in the first place. Once we understood that arms swing to counter the movement the legs are creating about the vertical axis of a spine, we went back to our physics and dynamic systems knowledge to figure out what kind of mechanism we actually needed to provide Caden to counter his leg momentum.”

In addition to the technical principles applied in the design portion of their project, the team felt their ME courses provided them with the ability to work past failure. “We have had countless prototype iterations before arriving at our final deliverable, all of which had some major flaws at different stages. After 4 years of Mechanical Engineering coursework, I think we are all accustomed to getting things wrong. As a freshman I was under the impression that to succeed in engineering, all my assignments and work needed to be completed nearly perfectly every time. I quickly realized this mindset was not only unreasonable, but was also unproductive in the ultimate goal of understanding new and often complex concepts. If we threw our hands up in defeat every time we didn’t understand something, we would never pass a class. This all too familiar feeling came up often in our capstone project, but because we have become comfortable with failure over the past 4 years, we used failed prototypes as a vehicle to progress our designs as opposed to halting our processes,” shared Gillis.

It takes a village!

 “We are hopefully on our final design just in time for the beginning of the spring track season. It has been extremely rewarding to be able to provide Caden with multiple iterations of a prosthetic that will allow him to compete alongside his teammates and hand a baton off to them,” said Wolpert. “Watching how excited Caden got after passing off the baton for the first time makes everything that much more worth it,” added Fitzpatrick.

The group’s course teaching assistant Josh Andreatta shared, “this team is very passionate about helping Caden and have been one of my most diligent and committed teams I oversee. They have made a lot of progress and are clearly very motivated to make the best prototype they can in order to help Caden.”

Throughout their project the team connected with experts on and off-campus who helped them improve their designs. and the group is immensely grateful for support they received along the way. “Kasey Calvert at the East Madison Hospital originally pointed us in the right direction,” said Fitzpatrick. Lonny Damewood and Mike Schmitt of Prosthetics Plus in Spencer, WI also donated extensive time and resources to the project. Gillis added, “I find Lonny and Mike’s passion for helping others through prosthetics very palpable. It is inspiring to connect with adults that are so excited to go into work each day and truly love what they do. As a soon to be graduate, I think venturing into the real world can be scary, especially with the negativity that often surrounds the workforce. To see two people that are so positive and appreciative of their jobs takes away some of those fears.”

ME buckys bionic runners team at prosthetics plus
Featured image: Project team and collaborators at Prosthetics Plus in Spencer, WI.

Good press

Have you already heard this story? Good! The team was featured on social media by @BadgerBeat and highlighted on Channel 3000 News.

>> Read more about senior design in the ME department:

All images provided by Caroline Gillis.