Engineering Prototype for Student-Alumni Collaboration


Scene Magazine | Spring 2021

Cole Hemann shot into an engineering career straight out of a St. Ambrose classroom confident he was far from the typical rookie.

The proof came via a Senior Design class and a final-semester experiential learning project through which Hemann and fellow Mechanical Engineering majors Jake Volkman '19 and Anthony Botello '19 added some marketable experience – plus an unexpected life skill.

"I know we spent almost eight hours sewing one day and none of us had much as far as seamstress skills before that," Hemann said, recounting some of their work on SWSH, a basketball shooting training tool that went on sale around Christmas 2020 and can be purchased today in 44 states and 19 countries. "I get strange looks when I tell people I learned sewing in college, but it was really hard."

SWSH is the brainchild of former SAU basketball player and assistant men's coach Christopher Spartz '07, '13 MOL. It builds upon the ubiquitous elbow sleeves that can be seen on players at every level of the game, and serves as an Exhibit A template for innovative collaboration between St. Ambrose alumni, students, and academic departments.

Like all good engineering and entrepreneurial projects, SWSH (sounds like "swish") began with an identified need. Spartz has been working with athletes of all ages at his six-year-old training academy in the Chicago suburbs where the lead instructor is former Fighting Bees All-American Nick Frazier '15.

A nagging frustration emerged during their work, though: seeing the shooting fundamentals of players regress between weekly or bi-monthly training sessions.

Working with a 14-year-old girl on recurring issues one day led to experimentation.

"I started with some caution tape around her elbows," Spartz said. "Then I tried some rope, but she got rope burn. So, I'm going, 'How do I get this right?'"

Spartz shared his frustration with another former Bees basketball player, Chris Donnelly '12, who now employs his own SAU engineering degree at Caterpillar in Morton, Illinois. Donnelly thought the idea sounded like a great senior project and got Spartz in touch with the SAU Engineering Department.

Hemann, Volkman, and Botello diligently and creatively helped build a prototype for a product Spartz would transform into a marketable innovation with the paid assistance of sports scientists, patent attorneys, a top marketing firm, and separate global companies to handle supply-chain sourcing, manufacturing, and distribution.

The shooting sleeve system "trains procedural memory by keeping a player's elbows in on their shot," according to product literature. The innovative apparatus uses a bridge between arms proven to control 41-percent of the arm movement in a player's shot, Spartz said, which reinforces proper mechanics, guarantees high-quality repetitions, and improves shooting accuracy.

SWSH is far more polished now than the student-built prototype, but developing a prototype was a necessary starting point. Hemann said the project involved six to seven demos, countless collaborating texts and a post-graduate final presentation in Chicago.

"Different materials. Different sizing. There were so many variables," said Hemann, a native of Keokuk, Iowa, working now in nearby Burlington at KPI Metals.

Student-Alumni Collaboration

Engineering students helped SAU basketball alums develop prototype for basketball players to improve their shooting mechanics.

Volkman recalls doing market research to ensure the idea was unique. The group tested different types of elastic for the bridge piece and created custom clips to go beyond the existing backpack fasteners available to tie the whole package together. The testing also included a videotaped photo session with basketball shooters of varying skills rigged with motion sensors to produce hard data for analysis and measure the effectiveness of the product.

"We had to apply something from every engineering class we had at Ambrose," said Volkman, a suburban Chicagoan who now works for the military at the Rock Island Arsenal.

Every SAU engineering student tackles a group project with real-world applications. Not all involve partnerships with SAU alumni. Few have the potential impact of creating the next Steph Curry.

"Hitting on Christopher's project with those other guys was like winning the lottery," Hemann said.

All three future engineers brought athletic backgrounds to the project. Botello, an SAU football player, was the most accomplished hoopster. SAU soccer player Volkman was next in line. Hemann, an SAU bowler, was the group's basketball novice.

"The different levels of skill helped bring different ideas of what could work," Hemann said. "The process was very enlightening to show we could do this, that we had the skills and capabilities to come up with a brand-new item."

The work included two hours once per week in class and three more meetings of varying duration per week outside of class.

"They made it a priority and really brought it to life," Spartz said, recalling texts from the trio at 2 and 6 a.m. "Without SAU and those boys working as hard as they did, no way we're in the market right now."

SWSH is getting increasing attention in Chicago and elsewhere, with former Michael Jordan-era Chicago Bulls center and current Bulls commentator Will Perdue as a contracted endorser.

"I'm thrilled with the recognition it's getting," Volkman said. "It's something I can always look back on and be like, 'Wow, I helped do this.' It gave us lots of real-world experience and what my current job ended up being like."

Spartz admits getting teary eyed now when looking back on SWSH's birth.

"All of this was derived from helping other people," Spartz said. "It wasn't, 'How can I make money?' It was, 'How can I help this 14-year-old girl?' It's the Ambrose way."

–Steve Tappa '91

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