Senior Design Journey 2019: Reimagining Wheelchair Design, Part 2

Mitchell DuBuc (foreground) monitors Anders Waldo’s (background) EMG sensor readings while testing the RoWheels. (Christopher LaRosa/UConn Photo)


This article is part of a multi-part series on engineering students, and their journey through Senior Design. Click here to read part 1 of this article series.

By: Ryley McGinnis, Student Written Communications Specialist, UConn School of Engineering

Coming close to the finish line of their Senior Design journey, the biomedical engineering team of Mitchell DuBuc, James Welch and Alex Draper are finding out that the real-world of engineering is more stressful than their engineering education.

The team is testing a new type of wheelchair wheels called Rowheels, which use a pull motion to go forward. In a traditional wheelchair, the user pushes to go forward and pulls to go backward. In the new pull wheelchair, users do the complete opposite and pull to go forward and push to go backward.

Under the advisement of Professor Krystyna Gielo-Perczak, the team is putting these wheels to the test. RoWheels have passed laboratory tests and applications, but this Senior Design team is testing these wheels in real-life applications.

However, the team faced major time constraints in their testing, which threw a wrench in their original plans.

The reason for the time constraints centered on the longer-than-anticipated approval process from the Institutional Review Board (IRB), leaving them only enough time to test on three people: DuBuc, Draper (as a control to see what muscles are activated for someone who isn’t wheelchair-bound) and DuBuc’s roommate, Anders Waldo ‘20 (CLAS), who also uses a manual wheelchair.

“That’s definitely my biggest regret, I just wish we had more time for testing,” said Draper.

DuBuc echoed the same sentiment and added that any Senior Design team that needs to conduct testing should definitely start the IRB process much earlier in order to avoid these obstacles.

“Once we got approval on March 26, we immediately sent out recruiting info to UConn’s Center for Students with Disabilities (CSD) and the UConn Daily Digest,” said DuBuc, “But, there are only five people on campus who reported to CSD that they used a manual wheelchair, including myself and my roommate.”

Draper (back) and DuBuc (right) test out the RoWheels as part of their Senior Design project with Waldo (left). Photo by Christopher Larosa.


They haven’t heard from the other three possible people, and they said they’ve accepted that they’re just going to have a limited sample.

However, the time constraints haven’t tainted their excitement for the project overall.

“We’ve been working on this project for about a year now and being able to collect the information and test our assumptions is exciting,” said DuBuc.

The team’s original hypothesis was that the Rowheels’ pulling motion would activate bigger muscles, like larger back muscles, and therefore prevent shoulder impingement that conventional wheels cause. They found that while this may be true in some cases, it really depends on the user’s type of disability and the muscles they have control of.

For DuBuc, who is paralyzed from the mid-spine down, the Rowheels didn’t activate the muscles they thought it would.

“Since I don’t have complete function of the bigger back muscles, we found that the body compensated to use more of the upper back muscles,” said DuBuc. He went on to say that this could possibly cause even more shoulder impingement.

“The testing showed us that it’s more complicated than just saying the Rowheels are better,” said DuBuc. “You can’t really make a blanket statement, it depends on the individual’s level of disability.”

The team said they hope that more people will continue testing the Rowheels so that they can eventually become a part of the physical therapy diagnosis process.  

“After part one of this story came out, a lot of people reached out saying they didn’t know about these wheels,” said Draper, “and that just lends itself to why we are evaluating these methods and how important it is to get the word out there.”

If the project were to be picked up by another team or professionals, Draper said that getting more testing done is crucial to see more trends and how it could actually apply to the field.

The team will finish up the project and prepare their final reports in time for Senior Design Demonstration Day on May 3, and they said they are honestly ready for it to be over.

“Even though we haven’t presented yet, just knowing that I’ll be done soon is a huge weight off my shoulders,” said Draper.

This team, along with over 230 others, will be presenting their final projects in person on Senior Design Demonstration Day, which will occur on May 3, from 1-4 p.m. in Gampel Pavillion. For more information on the program, please visit:

Categories: Front Page, Headline, UConn Engineering News May 2019