Russellville eighth-graders 3-D print prosthetic arm

It’s not every eighth-grader who takes on a challenge as ambitious as creating a prosthetic arm; however, it’s a project Ansley Willis, Kloee White and Wendy Barrientos, students in Lee Brownell’s Russellville Middle School STEM class eagerly adopted.

Their enthusiasm for the project has not waned despite a steep learning curve for researching, experimenting and creating prototypes.

The recipient of the prosthesis will be 4-year-old Sloan Hellums. She was born with a limb difference – in her case, this means she’s missing her left hand. Her mother, Lauren Hellums, is a special education teacher in the classroom next door.

After reading about prostheses being created with 3-D printers, Hellums asked Brownell if that was something he and his students had the ability to do. The classroom has access to a Flashboard Dreamer NX 3D printer and CAD software – specifically TinkerCAD, which is free, available online and runs on the students’ Chromebooks.

Willis, White and Barrientos were immediately drawn to the project. They, along with Brownell, started the process of planning and learning what would be required.

“We went online to look at Instructables and found a website called Unlimited with templates for everything, which we had to adjust for Sloan’s size,” explained Willis, who said initial research on the project took a month or two and started right after Christmas this past year.

After making the first prototype with purple plastic, they invited Sloan and her mother to class to check the fit. Further size adjustments are needed, and Brownell and the three students are currently working on the second prototype. If all goes well with that, the next step will be to make the final product.

Brownell said initial attempts were not all successful, with test prints initially crumpling.

“We had to get drawings going and work on resolving problems we encountered along the way,” he said. “I think we have most of those worked out now.”

The second prototype is pink with orange fingers – the colors Sloan wanted. Barrientos explained this version has supports – something lacking in the initial attempt.

“This project is interesting,” said White. “It’s really fun to get to do this for Sloan. We’ve never done anything like this before, and we’re learning a lot.”

Barrientos said it has been an amazing experience getting to work with her group on an enjoyable challenge to tackle together.

“It’s fun getting to know Sloan,” she said. “She looked so happy when she got to try on the first prototype. We’re working on additional size adjustments now, as well as how to make it lighter and stronger for her, especially more the size of her right hand.”

Barrientos said they have sized it down “quite a bit” from the original.

“It should be more comfortable and give her a better range of motion,” she added.  “We’re using fishing line instead of thread like we did on the first one because it’s stronger.”

Brownell said the final version will be made out of even more durable material.

“We’re working with PLA right now,” he said, “and it’s more brittle and not as durable. It’s just something to use for prototyping.”

He said the plan is to make the next one out of a material called ABS.

“I talked to Mr. Willis, the engineering teacher at the high school, and their 3-D printer will print with carbon fiber, so we’re looking at possibly doing some of the pieces printed out of that so they’ll be a lot stronger and lighter,” he added.

While Brownell said the adjustments for size aren’t overly difficult, other considerations include getting the palm and fingers right and trying to make everything proportional to Sloan’s right hand.

“The slicing software is proprietary. It’s what came with the 3-D printer,” Brownell explained. “That won’t run on the students’ Chromebooks, so we have to use my computer for that because it only works on a regular PC or Mac.”

Hellums said Sloan has never had a prosthesis before, though she has a little device on her tricycle to help her balance, though she rarely uses it.

“This is pretty big for her,” Hellums said. “She’s really excited. She’ll be going into Pre-K at Russellville next year.

“The first prototype, she really just tried it on to see if was too long or heavy, that kind of thing, and it was a little too heavy and long, so they’re working on addressing those issues now.”

The rest of the process is expected to be complete within a few more weeks.

Hellums said she wants people to understand that, while it’s exciting to think about her daughter using the prosthetic arm, there’s “not anything she can’t do” already – just as she is.

“She puts on her socks by herself, puts toothpaste on her toothbrush and dresses herself,” Hellums continued. “She plays T-ball and does everything on her own. This is just something I think she can add to herself and something to let her hold objects with what we call her ‘baby arm.’”

Hellums said some of the tasks that will be easier include holding a slice of pizza or a pencil or crayon – being able have a left hand for grasping things.

“My husband — Sloan’s father — and I are very thankful for these three girls and Mr. Brownell,” Hellums said. “It takes everybody working together, and I think this is just a wonderful growing experience for everyone involved.”

For Hellums, another benefit of the experience has been letting the students learn more about what it’s like to be around people who are different and to learn that “inclusion looks a lot of different ways.”

She said it has been encouraging for all involved.

“I’m just really proud for Sloan and the students and Mr. Brownell,” Hellums added. “We’re all more alike than different, and it’s good for everyone to see that and to see there are people out there that want to make a difference.”

She said she is appreciative that Sloan will get to go to school in the Russellville City Schools system.

“It’s been incredible. They make it possible for teachers like Mr. Brownell to make a difference in the lives of the kids.”

RMS Principal Tony Bonds said he’s pleased to see what can be accomplished in a middle school science class when everyone is passionate and dedicated.

“It’s great to see our students eagerly looking for ways to serve our community while learning in the classroom,” Bonds said. “Mr. Brownell has been really intentional about making science be living and breathing, and what better way to do that than to throw some passion into a project like this?”

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