During her first year as a track and field student-athlete at Elon, Madison George ’23 had to order pole vaulting shoes from overseas because she couldn’t find any in the U.S. in her size. Even those were not a perfect fit, as she quickly discovered that most sport-specific shoes are only available in men’s or unisex sizes.

Rather than accepting her less-than-ideal footwear, the engineering major from Scottsdale, Arizona, dedicated her time at Elon to creating a solution that could benefit women pole vaulters everywhere.

Armed with a grant from Elon’s Maker Hub, which provides students with $300 and other resources to bring an idea to life, she immediately set her sights on developing the first women’s pole vaulting shoe. She taught herself SolidWorks, a sophisticated 3D modeling platform, and 3D printed prototypes of the shoe’s bottom spike plate.

Then the COVID-19 pandemic struck. While it prevented her from pursuing the project further, it also gave her time to clarify her focus and expand the idea into her Honors Fellows thesis. She realized she needed to take a more scientific approach.

“Why is a pole vaulting shoe made the way it is? Because when you look at the three brands that produce pole vault spikes, they’re so different,” she says. “The spikes are in different places, the number of spikes varies, the heels have different levels of cushioning.”

By the time George returned to campus, she had a plan. She studied the biomechanics of women athletes and conducted a materials analysis of existing pole vaulting shoes, then used that data to create her own “scientifically backed” gender-specific shoe.

All of my experiences at Elon have empowered me to see challenges as opportunities to instill change for the better.

George teamed with two Elon mentors to advise her throughout the interdisciplinary project — Assistant Professor of Physical Therapy Education Shefali Christopher on the sport science side and Associate Professor of Engineering Scott Wolter on the engineering and design side.

She also secured two significant academic and financial boosts that allowed her to take her project to the next level: the Lumen Prize, Elon’s top research award that annually provides 15 rising juniors with $20,000 to advance their undergraduate research projects; and the prestigious Goldwater Scholarship, one of the most selective awards in the country given to sophomores and juniors who intend to pursue research careers in the natural sciences, mathematics and engineering.

George began with a biomechanical study, analyzing factors like which parts of the foot pole vaulters use during their approach. She also tested existing pole vaulting shoes to determine which ones rebound more on impact. She used her findings and a new design platform purchased with her research funds to design her own shoe and produce a prototype.

The enthusiastic response to her project from those at Elon and external groups like the Barry Goldwater Scholarship and Excellence in Education Foundation bolstered George’s confidence as a researcher. Now applying for fellowships and graduate programs, she hopes to pursue a career in biomedical imaging for injury diagnosis and apply for a patent for her shoe design. Whatever path she takes, she knows she will be making a difference.

“All of my experiences at Elon have empowered me to see challenges as opportunities to instill change for the better,” George says. “I am very excited to see the impact my project will have in creating gender equality in sports, preventing injury and enhancing performance.”