Sadie, a three-legged Brittany, has been struggling to go on daily walks — formerly her favorite activity. Without a left front leg, her remaining limbs work excessively hard, and her energy levels dwindle rapidly.
Although the 8-year-old dog was able to walk and run on three legs for most of her life without problems, “it’s taking a toll on Sadie now,” Schoenecker said.
Schoenecker, a special education paraprofessional at a high school, was sharing Sadie’s problems with fellow teachers, when one of them suddenly stopped her.
“Matt had this aha moment,” she said, referring to Matt Howe, who teaches engineering and design classes at Stillwater Area High School in Stillwater, Minn.
Howe said a lightbulb went off as Schoenecker was talking. He knew just how he would encourage his students to apply their math, design and computer knowledge to an actual problem: They could design and make devices to help Sadie walk.
“I was like, ‘This is absolutely perfect,’” Howe said. “It’s a real, authentic manner of learning.”
Plus, he figured, such a pooch-related problem would probably make the students even more enthusiastic about solving it.
And that’s how 90 students at the school became dedicated to the mission of creating assistive technology for Sadie to make walking easier for her.
Howe and Schoenecker hatched a plan for how the assignment would work and presented a proposal for “Project Saving Sadie” to students in three elective classes, ranging from freshmen to seniors.
“Everyone really locked in and started doing their work,” said Sam Doughty, 17, a junior in Howe’s class. “This is very unique, and I think it caught a lot of students’ attention.”
Sadie was excited, too. Schoenecker brought her to class so students could meet her and take her measurements, including her height and weight.
“She loves the kids. She seeks the attention,” Schoenecker said. “When she goes in the school, she is in heaven and the kids are so good to her.”
Students were divided into groups of three and were tasked with creating prototypes of assistive technology for Sadie. Prosthetic limbs and wheelchairs for dogs are available on the market, but “they’re costly, they’re not as form-fitting, and just not always easily accessible,” Howe said.
“Our idea was to try to make this as customizable as possible for Sadie,” he added.
They began by brainstorming concepts, using existing devices as inspiration. Then they drew models and eventually built samples using basic materials, such as sponges, cardboard, hook-and-loop fasteners, connectors and dog harnesses. Some students crafted parts using a 3D-printer.
While several groups created carts — which function as mini-wheelchairs, allowing the dog to push herself forward — others opted for prosthetic legs.
One group, for instance, attached an eight-inch plumbing pipe to a dog sweater, which they padded with carpeting for Sadie’s comfort. They screwed on a 3D-printed foot to make it a prosthetic limb.
Groups that decided to make carts tried various tactics; some experimented with four-wheel apparatuses, and others tested prototypes with one or two wheels instead.
Whether creating a cart or a prosthetic, the central shared obstacle for the students was finding a way to ensure the prototype would be positioned properly on Sadie.
“The dog doesn’t have a stump, it’s just a shoulder, so that was a big challenge for the kids to figure out how to hold something securely in place,” Howe explained.
“It’s good to fail fast sometimes. Not everything is going to work. In fact, most things won’t work the first time,” he told his students. “If you learn nothing else in my classroom, it’s learn how to learn.”
On Feb. 3, students tested out their prototypes on Sadie, who modeled the makeshift devices in a hallway outside the classroom. She remained patient and attentive as each group showcased their progress.
“She was amazing. We couldn’t have asked for a better dog,” said Howe, adding that he was also stunned by the work his students had done. “Watching them present, it just blew my mind.”
Testing out their creations on Sadie allowed the students to understand which parts of their project were working — and which weren’t. In many cases, Howe said, the wheels fell off the prototypes as Sadie tried to walk, and the prosthetic parts didn’t quite do their job.
“It’s all part of the learning process,” said Howe, explaining that they were pleasantly surprised that Sadie remained secure in all the prototypes, and the measurements were precise. Balance, meanwhile, was a major challenge for many groups, as well as material quality.
“It definitely showed me what kind of improvements I could make on my design,” said Christian Harvel, 15, a sophomore in the class who created a cart design. “It made me happy to see that it at least kind of worked.”
“Of course, it wasn’t flawless,” he continued. “There are definitely still improvements that can be made on it. It has taught me a lot so far.”
Doughty agreed. He and his group designed a wheelchair for Sadie, and so far, he said, it has been a process of trial and error.
Over several weeks, “there were a lot of modifications made, especially during the testing day,” he said.
Although the classes are divided into groups, Doughty added, it has been a team effort.
“I think a big factor of this is the community. Everyone has been working together,” he said. “Some people take ideas from others; some people grab materials from others. Everyone working together is always a great thing.”
Now that the initial testing stage is complete, the classes will review all the models and decide together which three they think have the most potential. Then, they’ll work collectively to refine them — with the help of some professionals.
The school has partnered with SMC, which manufactures medical devices. Volunteer engineers will visit the classroom in the coming weeks, to help students produce a usable product.
“They’re going to have a ton of resources and knowledge and access to materials and equipment that we don’t have access to,” said Howe, adding that he anticipates the project will take several more weeks to complete.
Eric Malmgren, SMC’s director of strategic services, said he and his colleagues are looking forward to working with the students, and showing them a bit about the industry.
“What resonates with us is that there are teachers and educators that are creating projects that have purpose and meaning and give kids a learning experience,” said Malmgren, adding that students will also be invited to visit the company’s facilities in Somerset, Wis. “We’re all trying to work together to make an impact.”
Schoenecker, for her part, said seeing the students in action has been a thrill, and their commitment to support Sadie is admirable.
“It’s really neat to see how inspired they are, and how creative they get,” she said. “From a personal perspective, I’m very excited. I’m hoping Sadie gets relief.”
Soon, Schoenecker said, “maybe she’ll be able to go on a walk again.”
Howe is also hopeful that Sadie will once again enjoy taking a stroll. And that the knowledge the class is learning can be applied to other situations.
In fact, he said, some students have already asked: “Can we do it for a cat next?”