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Northwestern students design penguin bootie

University partnership with the Shedd teaches freshmen how to design solutions to real problems

By Jodi S. Cohen, Chicago Tribune reporter

March 29, 2013

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The Shedd Aquarium had a problem: From time to time, its penguins did not have happy feet.

The birds, particularly the older ones, developed bumblefoot — uncomfortable lesions that can be caused by standing too long on a rough surface. The Shedd tried using a sandal-like shoe to protect the penguins' feet while veterinarians treated the problem, but that led to another challenge: The birds limped and tripped while waddling in the shoe.

Seeking a fresh solution, Shedd experts turned for help to Northwestern University and its McCormick School of Engineering. As early as freshman year, Northwestern engineering students are required to work with clients to solve real problems.

Students last fall designed the "Tuxedo," a six-winged, waterproof bandage that wraps around a penguin's foot and between its toes and provides a flexible solution that doesn't cause the bird to trip.

The orthopedic bootie — akin to a fancy Band-Aid — is the latest of about a dozen devices the students have designed over the past seven years to solve various challenges at the Shedd, thanks to a unique partnership between the two Chicago institutions.

"When the birds get (bumblefoot), it is a hard thing to treat," said Ken Ramirez, the Shedd's executive vice president of animal care and training. "But you aren't going to find a major company to design a penguin shoe."

Several times a year, Northwestern faculty members meet with aquarium staff to hear about the Shedd's latest challenges and discuss which ones the students might try to solve. In the past, students have designed a carrier for an ultrasound device, a machine that can deliver anesthesia to fish electronically and a decompression chamber for seahorses.

Students in the class this semester are working on "otter enrichment" — designing interactive activities to challenge otters.

Northwestern's partnership with the Shedd began in 2005 when Robert Shaw, 64, a Northwestern engineering alumnus and member of the school's advisory board, attended a dinner for Shedd donors. He sat with the aquarium's then-senior director for animal care, Dr. Bill Van Bonn, who is now a Shedd vice president.

"He talked about how, as a vet dealing with some exotic animals, he occasionally had needs for devices and there weren't companies that made (them)," Shaw recalled. "I said, 'I know where I can get some of that engineered for you.'"

The first device the students designed was the "endo-grabber," used to retrieve a foreign object like a pebble from an animal's stomach. It once was mailed to a California aquarium to remove a child's shoe from an alligator.

"It worked great. They got the shoe out, no problem," Van Bonn said. "The reason it was created is because there isn't anything commercially available. Unlike with human medicine, where physicians have fancy equipment to do just about anything you want with a scope, nobody makes them for these kinds of animals."

Northwestern's required freshman engineering class, Design Thinking and Communication, is jointly taught by engineering and writing faculty members. The class's purpose is to provide students with the skills not only to engineer a product but also to communicate with their clients. Half of a student's grade is based on engineering skills, the other half on writing skills.

The freshmen collectively work on about 40 to 50 projects a year, many of them for people with disabilities. Their clients include the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago and Lamb's Farm, a home for people with developmental disabilities. In a project for the Rehabilitation Institute, students designed the "Jarcano," a device that helps someone with the use of only one arm open a jar. Students also designed a device that can help someone with no arms be able to fish.

Faculty members give students a list of projects and ask them to rank their preferences. The Shedd projects are always a class favorite.

"If it has the word 'otter' or 'dolphin' in it, every student wants to do it because they are cute," said Northwestern professor Barbara Shwom, who teaches the writing part of the class.

Shedd veterinarian Dr. Lisa Naples said the students have supplemented the work done by the Shedd's staff as they care for 1,500 species.

"We are constantly looking for new and creative ideas," Naples said. "Half are things we have a basic tool for, but we would like to improve," Naples said.

That was the case with the Shedd's system for delivering anesthesia to fish during medical procedures. Typically when staff members need to change the medicinal dose during a procedure, they can do so only manually. Northwestern students designed and built a system that allows veterinarians, with a push of a button, to change the dose mechanically.

Northwestern juniors and seniors are given the more complex challenges.

"How many people can say they worked on a fish anesthesia delivery system?" Northwestern senior Frank Cummins said. "It was a difficult problem. It was a great challenge, and I will look back on it with a lot of pride."

The freshmen assigned to the penguin shoe project last fall were given few instructions: Design a waterproof shoe that can protect a penguin's foot while it heals, and allow it to walk, swim and stand comfortably.

Three of the student teams designed a sandal, but the winning group redefined the project and realized that a shoe wasn't necessarily the best option.

"They realized that the real need is sometimes not what somebody might say. It is easy to say, 'We need shoes to protect their feet.' What they really needed was to protect the sore part of the foot," said Stacy Benjamin, senior lecturer with Northwestern's Segal Design Institute. "The students learned that if you force yourself to think broadly and dive down to the root causes and issues, sometimes you end up redefining the problem."

Some project designs have been more successful than others. The specialized penguin footwear is likely to be a keeper, the Shedd's Ramirez said.

"Every once in a while you get a design that is workable, and we end up using it forever," he said.

On a recent afternoon at the Shedd, Lana Vanagasem, who oversees the Shedd's penguins, demonstrated how it works, wrapping the bandage around Penguin 303's foot and between its three toes.

The bandage is made of kinesiology tape, and a circular piece of neoprene foam is attached in the middle to cover and protect a sore.

Other than some wiggling as the bandage was put on his foot, Penguin 303 didn't seem to mind it.

"It is like a comfy pair of slippers," Ramirez said.

The students made a cookie cutter-like prototype so Shedd staff can cut out as many of the bandages as it needs over the years. Since the class designed the device last semester, no Shedd penguins have had bumblefoot.

Northwestern sophomore Karis Shang smiled as she watched the penguin waddle around in her team's winning design, made of purple tape in honor of Northwestern's color.

But when asked whether the successful design earned her an A in the class, she demurred.

"We did well," she said.

jscohen@tribune.com