Mechanical and materials engineering put into practice
June 26, 2023
When Sydney Garrah started her undergrad studies in mechanical engineering, she had no idea she would end up designing splints for injured wildlife. Yet, it was an experience that taught her a lot about the role an engineer can play off-campus and in the community. As part of a Capstone Design Course offered to fourth- and fifth-year students, Garrah and her colleagues worked with Sandy Pines Wildlife Centre (SPWC), a wildlife refuge in Greater Napanee, to support their daily work treating injured small animals.
"I feel fortunate to be a part of a project that could make a significant impact on the local wildlife rescue community," says Garrah. "My team was able to take technical skills from our courses and learn how to effectively apply those to a project involving clients helping vulnerable wildlife."
SPWC is a small non-profit organization that has been caring for injured and orphaned wildlife for 25 years. The team cares for approximately 5,000 animals a year, including foxes, deer, beavers, rabbits, turtles, owls and many species of birds and rodents, including squirrels. Since the partnership with Queen’s Engineering started in 2022, they have benefited from three newly designed solutions.
"Working with Queen's Engineering students has allowed us to improve patient care at the centre in ways that we could not do on our own," says Jess Pelow, education coordinator at SPWC. "The creativity and skillset of the students has been incredibly impressive and we are excited to continue this partnership."
Professor Roshni Rainbow (Mechanical and Materials Engineering) is one of the faculty advisors involved. Her students worked with SPWC to understand some of its problems, brainstorm solutions, create mock-ups or prototypes, and discuss testing and budgeting.
The first project Dr. Rainbow’s students investigated came from the vet operating room. When treating injured small animals, SPWC was using veterinary splints designed for cats and dogs. These devices, while helpful, were time consuming to apply and didn’t really fit the wild species they were working with. Instead, the staff was searching for a solution that would be simpler to use and apply.
"This project taught us the importance of user-centered design," says Garrah. "It was crucial for us to imagine ourselves in the role and day-to-day routine of the SPWC staff to be able to find a solution that could integrate into their workflow. This is important in any design project and is a skill I will carry with me through my career as an engineer."
The team created a 3D printing solution and an easy workflow to work with. Now, the veterinarians take a few measurements from the injured animal’s limbs and put them into a spreadsheet that calculates the details of the design to be printed.
The interdisciplinary work with veterinarians at the wildlife centre also brought up some additional challenges for the students to research. One of the big ones was considering that wild animals could chew on the splints – they had to be resistant and non-toxic, and preferably easy to clean so they could be reused.
From birds to raccoons
In addition to the 3D printed splints, Queen’s engineering students worked on two other designs that are already in use by SPWC: a playground for baby raccoons and a perch for prey birds.
"When raptors and different kinds of birds come in, they tend to get an infection on their feet because they don't move from different materials like they do in the wild," explains Dr. Rainbow. The students addressed this challenge by creating a perch with different textures.
Another group of students worked on an enrichment centre for baby raccoons, allowing them to develop certain skills to survive in the wild, such as foraging and climbing. The group looked at natural materials available at SPWC grounds and created a rope ladder fashioned from different kinds of sticks and branches to build a climbing structure. They also used milk crates and other materials that would be easy to replace if needed and provided instructions on how to repair the design in case of damage.
Dr. Rainbow highlights that all the projects took technical analysis and engineering skills into consideration. "For example, in engineering we spend a lot of time learning about stress and strain and material properties. The students implemented this knowledge to solve real problems, testing and finding the actual values of different properties of their design," she says. "We want our students to know that engineering can happen everywhere and they can go out there and change the world."
SPWC is looking forward to continuing this collaboration. The Centre is always looking for innovative solutions to reduce animal stress and improve their medical care. Ideas for future projects include designing safer enclosures for a songbird and making a custom medical device for a turtle.