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Clyde, a black lab with paralyzed back legs
February 16, 2022

Making a difference: First-year engineers build wheelchair for paralyzed dog

Written By: Alex Holloway

For Clyde the dog, University of Wisconsin-Madison first-year engineering students have offered one of the greatest gifts of all: renewed freedom to move about on his own.

Clyde is a four-year-old black lab who was struck by a car a few years ago. Since then, he’s been partially paralyzed, with his hind legs left limp and dangling. His owners, Mike and Shelly Zytniowsky, say Clyde’s outlook was bleak after the accident, but haven’t quit seeking ways to improve his quality of life.

These days, Clyde wears a harness with a handle near his hips that the Zytniowskys can use to raise his rear legs to help him move while walking on his front legs. They’ve tried a wheelchair in the past, but Mike says it wasn’t the best option for Clyde.

“It didn’t fit right, and the weight distribution wasn’t right when he tried to use it,” he says. “It was uncomfortable for him. One day, we went to our vet asking for solutions to our problems with the wheelchair, and they recommended contacting the UW-Madison engineering program.”

That’s where biomedical engineering teaching faculty member Dr. Tracy Jane Puccinelli and her intro to engineering students came in. The course, Inter Engr 170, is a design practicum that’s provided valuable hands-on experience with real-world clients for first-year engineering students since 2016. Puccinelli designed and oversees the current iteration of the program, in which students work together in multiple labs under various instructors.

Every semester, students split into teams to take on different projects. In fall 2021, the team “Dog’s Best Friend” tackled designing a new wheelchair for Clyde.

Jace Addy, an undecided engineering major, says the team looked at what wasn’t working with Clyde’s original wheelchair and tried to improve upon it. The team designed a new wheelchair with an aluminum frame connected by PVC joints.

“The old wheelchair had a harness that wasn’t very good quality, and had some bands that you put his legs through,” Addy says. “It wasn’t very secure, and it was pretty flimsy, so we wanted to make something better.”

Team Dog’s Best Friend’s design incorporates an underbelly sling for added stability. Ethan Mapirala, a first-year civil and environmental engineering student, says the group wanted to add more support for Clyde’s stomach and chest while keeping the overall frame of the chair higher off the ground. The previous wheelchair was too low for Clyde’s body, so it would tilt and roll backwards, even when Clyde stood still.

Clyde tested out Team Dog’s Best Friend’s design at a poster session at the end of the fall 2021 semester and—with some cheese for encouragement—was able to walk on his own from Mike to Shelly.

“Working with the students has been great,” Mike says. “They’ve been extremely helpful and enthusiastic with testing the new wheelchair for Clyde and getting our feedback. We’re very happy with what they’ve built.”

Inter Engr 170 not only provides students with an opportunity for hands-on experience with real-world clients, but a chance to work together in interdisciplinary teams. It’s an early introduction for students to the type of multifaceted learning they’ll experience throughout their time in the College of Engineering. It’s also a class that empowers them to think creatively right away as freshmen.

“They’re having to pass these very tough classes in math, physics and other sciences,” Puccinelli says. “This is an outlet for them. It’s not just about academics—it’s about applying engineering knowledge. A lot of them have different backgrounds, and this course gives them the chance to see what it’s like to work together on something for a common goal in a space where they don’t have to know everything and can lean on each other.”

Team Dog’s Best Friend’s members say Inter Engr 170 has left an impression as a unique experience. They say the class gave them a chance to work on a project that went beyond their expectations for an entry-level course. They hope to carry the lessons they’ve learned from the semester-long project with them through their time at UW-Madison.

“This has been a much different experience from what I’ve had before,” says Julie Solita, a biomedical engineering student. “This isn’t my first time working on a group project, but I’ve never done something like this where I had to do the research, then help create the project while also writing reports on it. As a freshman, it’s been a great experience being involved in all three parts.”

Inter Engr 170 relies, in part, on community submissions, and has gained a reputation through the years for the students’ outstanding work on assistive technologies for disabled animals. In previous years, students have designed a wheelchair for a dog born without front legs, prosthetic limbs for a cat that lost its legs in a train accident, and a prosthetic foot for a rooster. But their projects don’t just include animals. Students also have worked on out-of-this-world projects, such as designing systems that could one day provide shielding for long-range space flight.

First-year engineers build wheelchair for paralyzed dog