STEM Club learns to literally walk the dog

STEM, robotics teacher Michael Warholak with, front row from left, Angiel Luque, Tasha Jackson with Paris, Tiffany Magno and Olivia Brzostek; second row, Michael Brzostek and Brandon Espinal

BLOOMFIELD, NJ — Bloomfield High School STEM Club has been working on a carriage to hopefully provide greater mobility for a dog with hind legs that are paralysed.

Maria Paladino Fitz, a lifelong Bloomfield resident, BHS Class of ‘73, and township businesswoman, learned that the high school had a STEM/Robotics club, and last month she took her dog, Paris, to club advisor Michael Warholak hoping that he and his club could devise a way to permit her pet to walk again on her own. Paris, 13, is a shih tzu-poodle mix which is commonly called a shih-poo.

Paris walking on the carpet of the classroom in a four-wheeler.

STEM is an acronym for science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Warholak’s STEM/Robotics students regularly compete against other schools in a northern NJ league.

To walk her dog, Fitz currently must hold Paris up by using a sling going underneath the dog. The sling is attached to a leash and the dog is physically held up off the ground by the walker. If not, the dog would collapse to the floor.

Paris developed degenerative myelopathy two years ago, Fitz said. In a Facebook post detailing the effort of Warholak and his students, she wrote. “When we started noticing trouble with her gait, under the advice of our vet, we took her for an MRI and a CT SCAN where they were poking around in her spine and after that, she never walked again. Very sad, because I know they exacerbated her problem. She otherwise still gets around by dragging herself around the house.
She moves from place to place and follows us around. It looks pathetic to see her crawling around, dragging herself, but we encourage her to do that so she keeps the muscle strength in her front legs.”

Paris being held up in a two-wheeler otherwise her front legs would have given out.

Paris made her first trip to the high school to be measured, according to sophomore Michael Brzostek, a club member who took part in the project. From these measurements, a two-wheel carriage was devised and constructed. Michael said the carriage was partly made from parts of a light-weight crutch from the club’s scrunge pile.

“I’m a dumpster diver,” Warholak interjected as Michael and senior Tasha Jackson worked fitting the parts together last week awaiting the arrival of Paris.
The wheels were made using a 3-D printer. This took six hours. Other chassis parts also were made using the printer — another four hours. A piece of a shoulder sling that Warholak had worn after surgery was also used, as was shipping foam and webbing.

Paris arrived in the arms of Fitz and a fitting and trial run for the two-wheeler took place. This was Wednesday, June 21, in Warholak’s classroom. But the two-wheeler proved ineffective: The dog’s front legs were unable to hold her up.

“We have to make a wagon,” Warholak said. “Instead of just a rear set of wheels, she needs a full set of wheels.”

Working quickly because the last day of school was the next day, Warholak and several club members came up with the design and construction of a four-wheel vehicle within 24 hours. A further time constraint on the day, Thursday, June 22, was that it was graduation day and Warholak was to march in the graduation procession. His cap and gown hung against the wall. Also, Tasha was graduating and unavailable. Michael, still with the project, worked with sophomores Tiffany Mango and Olivia, his twin sister.

Paris arrived and there was another fitting; adjustments were made. The four-wheeler held her up but it was not perfect because the dog could sometimes slip from the soft belt keeping her body on the carriage bedding. And the front wheels did not turn, so turning even a little bit may have been impossible, at least possibly until her front legs became stronger from using the wagon. But down a second-floor hallway, in a test run, Paris did walk on her own.

Although the project has not been completed, some of those who took part had thoughts.

“It was pretty fun,” Michael said. “But I’m allergic to dogs. That’s why I stayed with the design and didn’t do the measurements.”

“It was a nice, little team with a specialist’s approach,” Warholak said.
“Helping Paris could open doors for me,” said Tasha, who is entering Centenary College as a biology-pre veterinary student in the fall. “If I could show I was helping animals in my early years, it would show I have some experience.”

“This is the way to learn engineering,” Warholak said. “If it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work and you start over.”

In an email received earlier this week, Warholak wrote: “I am looking at Thursday for switching out the front wheels for caster type (swivel) wheels so Paris can turn while she moves. Right now she can not turn without help. Overall we are very close to getting her quality of life as close to normal as possible under the circumstances. Dogs don’t really know they are disabled, they just do their best without complaining, unlike many humans. We are the ones who feel sad for them and put much of our own feeling into their situation. This empathy is actually a good thing I believe, and helps us in other aspects of our lives and relationships with others, be they human or animal.”

Other STEM students who helped with the project are sophomore Angiel Luque and senior Brandon Espinal.