Giving a Hand to STEM

At Brookwood School in Manchester, Massachusetts, Rich Lehrer, the school’s innovation coordinator, discusses the phalanges of prosthetic hands. Photo by David Oxton

Rich Lehrer, innovation coordinator at the Brookwood School in Manchester, Massachusetts, wanted his eighth graders to work on real-life science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) projects that help solve community problems. So in 2013, when he saw a video about South African carpenter Richard Van As and American mechanical special effects artist Ivan Owen creating a 3D-printed prosthetic hand to replace the fingers Van As lost in an accident, Lehrer says he was “blown away by [the opportunity] to create a prosthetic hand for Max,” his son, who was born with symbrachydactyly, a condition that causes short or missing fingers. “It was an opportunity to involve my students in an authentic project-based learning (PBL) and design project,” he maintains.

With advice from Van As, who, with Owen, posted the design for their Robohand online, Lehrer worked with 12 students over seven months in a weekly half-hour club to build the hand.

In Houston, Texas, Nghia Le, physical science teacher at Booker T. Washington High School, says he was interested in 3D printing because “I wanted to have my engineering students do rapid prototyping.” He discovered e-NABLE, a worldwide nonprofit community of volunteers who create free 3D-printed hands and arms for those in need. e-NABLE offers open-source designs on its website (see and matches persons needing the prosthetics with schools and organizations that can do the 3D printing.

In his classes, Le explains, “We focus on problem solving. Engineering [involves looking] at different problems, [seeing] how to apply innovative tools to everyday life and problems. Get[ting] students to apply what they know to solve a complex problem.” He says he wanted his students to help someone nearby so they could meet with the person.

“I let students choose projects, projects near us,” he adds. Through e-NABLE, Le and his students connected with six-year-old Gracie Henderson, who was born missing part of her left arm and hand. He and his students decided to create a prosthetic hand for her. “We weren’t sure we could do it, but we wanted to try,” he relates. “Problems are part of what we deal with, making sure students learn from their mistakes. [This project was] a perfect way for this to happen.”

Facing Challenges, Achieving Success

Lehrer’s first hurdle was acquiring supplies. “We had three groups: one to find a 3D printer, one to find the metal hardware, and one to find thermoplastic, which gets soft when heated and can wrap around the arm and provide a form for holding everything together,” he explains.

“We connected with the Governor’s Academy in Byfield, Massachusetts, [to print] the parts. Our maintenance department helped with the metal components,” says Lehrer. A hand surgeon from Boston Children’s Hospital connected them with pediatric orthotic products supplier Boston Brace, which donated hundreds of dollars’ worth of thermoplastic material. But “figuring it out without a curriculum was hard. We looked at a lot of devices online,” he admits.

As a father, Lehrer faced the challenge of “doing the project with Max, considering his safety. So many things could have gone wrong” if the device had not been made well, he allows. He also had to consider his students’ safety. “We’re an independent school, so we followed departmental safety procedures. Heating the thermoplastic was a major issue, so we used tongs, hot plates, goggles, gloves, [and other safety equipment].”

Le obtained about $1,200 to purchase a 3D printer through a sponsorship by KBR Inc., a Houston engineering firm. “They support education and had an interest in our school’s program,” he notes. “[But we] went through two or three printers during the project,” with a second one donated through Donors and a third “sold to us at a discount by a retail store,” he recalls.

“When the printer goes down, you have to send it to the shop,” which often involves waiting “six to nine months for the repair. We decided to learn how to fix a printer. We could fix 80% of the problems,” Le reports.

Another challenge with the printer is that “some parts of the hand…come out differently from what you expect,” he observes. And Le’s team had to start over after they created the first hand. “We first made a three-finger hand for Gracie, but she wanted five fingers,” he explains.

The project took about a year and a half. “We had a change of teams three times because students graduated. The last team took six months to complete the hand,” Le says.

Lehrer was excited when Max was able to use the finished hand, noting, “[I]t launched Brookwood and me into the world of authentic uses of 3D printing.” It also led to him becoming K–12 education coordinator for the e-NABLE Educators’ Exchange and the Enable Community Foundation, for which he wrote an official curriculum.
Lehrer says the prosthetic hands students are now creating are “95% 3D-printed (our first device was only 30% 3D-printed), and almost all parts can be 3D-printed in 16 to 20 hours…The 3D-printed upper limb prosthetics field has moved very quickly.”

The project “had a lot of impact on my students,” Le concludes. “They [developed] a personal relationship with Gracie, [which I believe is] important when training engineers and scientists …to help someone. Compassion is important.” His students are now trying to make a prosthetic foot for a duck.

One major factor in the success of Brookwood’s program has been that Max has been a student there for two years, Lehrer contends. “To do a good job of designing [prosthetics], you have to know the [user]…Most hand devices are designed and built by [persons without upper limb differences] who may not know what it’s like [for the users].”

As children grow, they outgrow devices, and many prosthetic hand users benefit from additional adaptors for various activities, he notes. “A sixth grader designed the clip that holds a drumstick so Max can play the drums. Other student-designed clips help him use a baseball bat and a scooter.”

Brookwood now has “kids building hands in fifth and eighth grade,…students designing activity-specific clips for adaptors for…Max’s hand, and has pioneered this very cool activity [in which] kids ‘hack’ the existing e-NABLE files to create cool little grabbers,” Lehrer reports. And to broaden the authentic design work students are doing, he has created a “problem bank” of “problems around the school and community that students can solve” using 3D printing, he relates. For example, students are working with senior citizens to create devices to help them.

These projects “are as rich, if not more rich, than making a 3D-printed hand…Real-life problems that need solving are the best use of the machines” because they help students develop problem-solving, 3D modeling, and technological skills, he contends.

Learning About Inventions

As part of an engineering unit, Sue Gore’s fifth graders at Liberty Intermediate School in Chesterton, Indiana, build prosthetic hands. “There’s a section on biotechnology in our textbook that covers prosthetics of all kinds. I teach the design process for science and do a Rube Goldberg/simple machines project with my students, then lead them into biotechnology,” she relates. She and three colleagues who teach science and math decided to have students create prosthetic hands when they teach the biotechnology section.

The students use a variety of everyday materials, such as plastic fasteners, string, and cardboard, to create the hands. “The hand has to have a hinged wrist and jointed fingers and has to be anatomically correct,” says Gore. “It has to be acceptable to a human being; [with] no ‘claws.’”

Last year, students built their hands at home with parents or other adults. This year, students made them in the school’s new makerspace, paid for by a grant from the Duneland Education Foundation, which provides funds to enhance educational experiences for K–12 students in the community. “The students worked in teams to make their hands in the new makerspace,” Gore explains. In addition, “we knew that the students would be doing the hands-on work versus the parents doing most of it.”

The finished hands varied in size. “Some were…too large to hold a ball, a marker, or a cup,” which was required, Gore observes. “We critiqued [the hands] as engineers, so they would learn from their prototype….

“My students understand that you may redesign and tweak [a device] many times before it’s ready for the market,” she points out. “It’s important for students to collaborate and go through the whole cycle of the design process.

After attending a U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) conference for educators, Gore now teaches students about “getting their work protected. I…require them to do a diagram [of their prosthetic], just as engineers do when they submit inventions to [the USPTO],” she reports.

The unit ends with students “using the Human to Human Interface”—a device that connects one person to another with wires and uses probes—“to see how one’s brain can control another’s hand,” says Gore. “This was a great follow-up to the prosthetic hand presentations. The students were amazed that one could control [the] bodily movements of another [using] wires.”

She also emphasizes the human side of prosthetics. “We look at videos of the Special Olympics…[to see how] flexible materials are needed so an athlete can continue to compete. [We also consider the circumstances of] the Boston Marathoners and the difference you can make” in people’s lives with prosthetics.

This article originally appeared in the April 2017 issue of NSTA Reports, the member newspaper of the National Science Teachers Association. Each month, NSTA members receive NSTA Reports, featuring news on science education, the association, and more. Not a member? Learn how NSTA can help you become the best science teacher you can be.

The mission of NSTA is to promote excellence and innovation in science teaching and learning for all.

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About Debra Shapiro

Associate Editor of NSTA Reports
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