West Texas A&M University

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Problem Solving for Peg


June 13, 2019

Problem Solving for Peg

WT engineering camp designs a wheelchair for pig


Peg the Pig needed help. And when Peg the Pig needs help, she turns to alumna Emily Hurst and the students at the West Texas A&M University’s engineering camp.

Well, more accurately, Lone Star Scales and Tails Wildlife Sanctuary reached out, but Peg the Pig was a willing patient.

“She was there almost seven hours and loved it,” said Liberty Mildner of Lone Star Scales and Tails. “She loved it the whole time. She loves the kids and attention. She’s quite a ham.”

Of course, she is. About 11 pounds of ham for the two-month-old piglet. But here’s the issue: Her front left leg was underdeveloped and did not fully form. It’s like a tiny arm. Peg can’t get around like a normal pig.

So, in late April, Scales and Tails sent an email to Dr. Emily Hunt, dean of WT’s School of Engineering, Computer Science and Mathematics, with a request. Could a prosthetic be designed for Peg during the University’s engineering camp this summer?

The response: an emphatic yes.

“They had heard that our students solve problems that meet local needs,” Hunt said. “They recognized that while she may be able to get around right now, long term, she will have a tough time without a prosthetic or some type of body support.”

Hunt then enlisted the help of Emily Hurst, a former student and a mechanical engineering graduate in May 2018. Hurst is now a student at UT-Southwestern in Dallas, where she is pursuing a health care profession master’s degree in prosthetics and orthotics.

A prosthetic for a baby pig wasn’t in the curriculum at UT-Southwestern, but so be it. Peg needed a leg up, and for Hurst, this was a chance to return to her alma mater and show the different avenues available in mechanical engineering.

“I thought it sounded super fun,” Hurst said.  

Peg Leg Peg

*Pictured: Emily Hurst, a WT graduate in mechanical engineering and now studying prosthetics and orthotics at UT-Southwestern, led a group of students on a project for a device for Peg the Pig, born with a deformed front left leg.

Hurst, a San Angelo Central graduate, came to WT initially to play basketball. But one too many ACL knee surgeries ended the 6-foot post’s basketball career. But she didn’t want to leave Canyon because of her classes and friends.

She always wanted to study prosthetics. She believed a health sciences degree was the way to go until Dr. Pam Lockwood, mathematics professor and associate dean of SECSM, told her a mechanical engineering study would be the best foundation. So Hurst was one of about three females in the field among 45 to 50 males.

The growing field of prosthetics/orthotics fit Hurst, she said, because of her interests, her problem-solving talents and some artistic aspect in engineering devices for legs and arms.

“I get to be creative with it,” she said, “but mostly it’s working one-on-one with people in need. It’s a career that allows me to help and serve others. It seems like an amazing way to use my God-given talent to do that.”

The number of amputees could double in the next 25 years, Hurst said, so a career in prosthetics is open and promising.

“It’s definitely a field that fits a need,” Hurst said, “and it’s a passion of my heart to expose people to it. A lot of my former classmates had never considered it, so it’s important to get the word out, that not only is engineering working on big projects, but helping people individually, too.

“In the prosthetic field, we solve problems. It’s not always a textbook answer to what an amputee is going through. My job is to get creative and find solutions that no one has found before. Mechanical engineering taught me to think through those problems.”

And in the first week of June, it was solving a problem for a two-month-old pig while engaging area students. The camp brought in about 220 students from kindergarten through seniors for a staggered five days.

Hurst sent a video earlier to students to introduce the project as well as Peg, and give them an overview of what would be done on June 6, the final day of the camp.

“The goal was to get them to see as engineers that you can provide immediate help,” she said. “You think of engineers, you think of machines and big moving parts and not necessarily think of people or animals or something on a smaller scale.”

Because of school commitments, Hurst could not design a prosthetic for Peg. Instead, she discussed with about 75 students the kind of metal to use, how a device would connect with the pig, what kind of movements Peg would be doing.

The result was a kind of a pig wheelchair, one that would lend support and allow for mobility. Because the pot-bellied Peg still has some growing to do, where she could double in size every three weeks, her pig wheelchair will have to wait a bit.

“It’s rare for a pig to have a front wheelchair,” said Mildner, “because when there is one, it’s usually for the back legs because of a back injury. But looking at the design, I absolutely think it will work. But she’s such a happy little pig. When you call her by name, she tries to run to you.”

If Peg benefited, so too did the high school students who studied the problem in groups and impressed Hurst with how engaged they were from 3:30 until 9 p.m., a long 5 ½ hours.

“They were tired after a long week, but I was so proud of them,” Hurst said. “I was impressed with the questions they asked and really the ideas they had. Honestly, I was blown away.

“I loved how inquisitive and interested they are in the field. It got me excited. That was rare for me. You don’t see that a lot in younger kids.”

Do you know of a student, faculty member, project, an alumnus or any other story idea for “WT: The Heart and Soul of the Texas Panhandle?” If so, email Jon Mark Beilue at jbeilue@wtamu.edu.