Engineering students, doggie day care owner team up to build the better pooper scooper

Dan Spangler’s doggie day care and boarding business found itself in some deep … trouble last year.

An inspector cited the New Bern, N.C., entrepreneur and dog lover for having a rusty pooper scooper, a violation under state Department of Agriculture guidelines. It frustrated Spangler, who spent countless hours maintaining the metal scoopers and hundreds of dollars replacing them year after year.

He started thinking about everything else that bugged him about available dog waste removers. The way the springy tines on the rake bounced stray bits back onto his shoes. The way any blast of water hard enough to clean the equipment also soaked everything around it. The way his wrist hurt after picking up and dumping easily 30-50 pounds of poop every day.

After hearing about Vanderbilt University’s The Wond’ry entrepreneurship center and makerspace, Spangler decided to see if anyone there could help. Director of Making Kevin Galloway and his students could – and did. On March 14, they unveiled the scooper of the future, which they’re seeking to patent and commercialize for dog shelters, boarding businesses and families that just have a lot of dogs.

“If I hadn’t reached out to The Wond’ry, this would still be a drawing on a napkin,” Spangler said. “Maybe not even that.”

Galloway’s class is How to Make (Almost) Anything, and students majoring in a variety of disciplines flock to it. Two sophomore engineering students on the project attended last week’s unveiling, Spencer Ray, a mechanical engineering major, and Caitlin Allison, an electrical engineering major.

Ray said he handled the design and 3D printing of new parts and was most excited by the two-sided rake – forked for solid waste and flat for soft. “I didn’t know how we were going to do it at first, but we used a foamcore prototype and then went on to metal,” he said. “I was glad to be assigned to this because, earlier in life, my father and I joked that there had to be a better way.”

Allison said it stretched her engineering skills to help prototype and test iterations of the scooper, rather than apply her electrical engineering knowledge to some high-tech device.

“It was especially helpful to work with an actual client, because that’s what we’ll be doing after we graduate,” Allison said. “This wasn’t just an assignment. We had someone there who could either say, ‘That’s great,’ or ‘That won’t work, and here’s why.’”

In the end, the team ended up with the firm, two-sided rake that stands up without support plus a plastic, dustpan-style device with an ergonomic handle and a built-in hose connection and spraying system with no splash-back.

Sure, it’s funny to work on a pooper scooper, said Galloway, but the device doesn’t matter. It’s helping students solve real-world problems such as Spangler’s, which could have cost him his business license.

“Wherever students go in their careers, they’re going to take on projects where they don’t have expertise and will have to rely on and collaborate with others,” Galloway said. “If you trust the process, you’ll find something that works.”