Shania, a fourth grade student in Jersey City, held up the plastic artificial hand.
“See, it doesn’t bend very well,” she said. “So it can’t hold things it needs in order to eat.”
The challenge for her and other members of her small team, Elizabeth and Rena, was to develop a tool that would help the hand function better.
They were among 200 students from around Jersey City working in teams of three and four in a competition to develop tools that would allow someone with an artificial limb to be able to perform more intricate tasks.
Using computers and 3-D printers, these students design and build models that might someday become tools that will make a difference in people’s lives.
“This is one of the reasons I’m really impressed with this program.” said Maritza Rodriguez-Dortrait, principal of PS 20 Dr. Maya Angelou School, which hosted a day long competition that featured designs by students. “This isn’t just a program that helps with STEM studies, but it also helps student emphasize with others and about caring.”
STEM is the study of science, technology, engineering and mathematics, and is one of the key components of CORE curriculum.
The competition between teams of students culminated the six-month long program called Project E-Nable. Project E-Nable is a worldwide humanitarian organization that works to donate affordable prostheses to those in need.
Teaching kids technology and how to care
Sponsored by Jersey City-based PicoTurbine, which also hosts STEM study camps in spring and summer, the program had students from the eight schools working to improve prosthesis design for a real child.
PicoTurbine is headquartered in Jersey City and has been involved in the STEM community for nearly two decades, providing education products and services. Staffed by engineers and educators, the company also has ties to Stevens Institute of Technology.
Dr. Darrell Carson, superintendent of sciences for grades K to 8, said eight schools were part of the program, which is designed to help strengthen the students’ skills in STEM.
Rodriguez-Dortrait said the program started at the beginning of the school year when teachers went through training on the new technology. After about a month, students began to take up the challenge of designing possible improvements using notebook computers and designer programming. Students used 3D printers to design and test prototypes of their hands as they perfected their designs.
“It was amazing to see how teachers could turnkey what they learned to bring this to the students,” she said.
“This is free thinking, organic and fearless.” – Maritza Rodriguez-Dortrait,
But she was even more impressed with the students, who could come up with ideas and solutions for technological problems.
“This is free thinking, organic and fearless,” she said.
PicoTurbine worked with Carson to develop a program that would engage elementary students in challenging and purposeful activities. PicoTurbine provided a 3D printer for each participating school as well as training and support to teachers, mentorship for students and provided assistance in designing the curriculum.
Students learned about anatomy, physiology, geometry, engineering, and computer-aided design as they worked to improve a prosthetic hand that would be used by a real child. Students learned to render their designs in computer-based design programs so they could be created on a 3D-printer and tested. The students’ challenge was to modify the prosthesis to better the functionality of the product for a fellow student.
“We’ve been seeking to create more opportunities like this, that engage students in using Science, Technology, Engineering, Art and Math (STEAM) by letting them be the scientists, engineers and designers,” said Carson.
Staff from PicoTurbine helped coach the students, she said, teaching them how to handle sophisticated technology such as the 3-D printer, as well as bolstering skills using computer design.
Making it real
Shania, Elizabeth, and Rena said they came up with several ideas before they managed to develop a model that would help someone to be able to pick up a cup to drink. This design had a post which the artificial hand could grip attached to a ring which holds the cup.
While none of the three had any idea yet of what career path they would take, each found the project interesting, they said.
Diamond, Saagarika, Dhruvil, and Jon developed an attachment that would allow the artificial hand to fit into something that looked like a plastic version of brass knuckles, but had a pointed section that helped hold a piece of fruit.
“We wanted to make something to help him eat better,” Diamond said.
“We were concerned about someone else getting hurt by the point,” Jon said, revering to a pointed section that connected the tool to the artificial limb.
So the four students decided to blunt the point slightly.
Meanwhile, Bryan, Jeffrey, Rodmarie and Angelina designed silverware – fork, knife and spoon – that could be more easily manipulated by an artificial hand.
“We had a few ideas said Angelina. “We tested them until we found one that worked.”
Al Sullivan may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.