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High school students and 3D printers change lives of young amputees

Avery Schneider
Katelyn McCarthy and her new 3D-printed prosthetic hand

The work of high school students in a summer STEM education program came to fruition Tuesday with the presentation of 3D-printed hands for children.

It’s a big day for 9 year old Katelyn McCarthy from Derby, New York. She’s one of four children with a new prosthetic, designed and 3D-printed by students in the “Hand-in-Hand” program. Three of them are from Western New York, and the fourth – found by the online volunteer community e-NABLE – lives in India.

When McCarthy was measured for her hand in July, her mother said she has worked hard to learn how to tie her own shoes with one hand. Now, with her new prosthetic, McCarthy said the first thing she wants to learn to do is tie them with two – and she’s confident it won’t take long.

Credit Avery Schneider / WBFO News
One of the three prosthetic hands 3D-printed for children in the Hand-in-Hand program.

“Uh…like a week,” McCarthy estimated. And when asked if she’s excited about it, a simple smile and, “yes,” is all she needed to say.

The students in “Hand-in-Hand” had just over a week to design McCarthy’s hand. They met her on a Thursday, and had only through the following Friday to draft their plans and 3D-print numerous prototypes in the technology lab at Health Sciences Charter School. From there, the final plans went to Miller 3D, a division of East Aurora-based A.W. Miller, where Pat Harrington did the professional-grade printing.

“A lot of the stuff that I do is for manufacturing discipline and things like that. But to see these hands get used by these kids, it’s another level,” said Harrington. “And it really shows what this technology is able to do, and – if you get students involved with math and engineering – what they’re able to do.”

Danya Flood came from the Research Lab of Bioinformatics at Bennet High School to be one of those students. And while she ended up gaining experience in mechanics, technology, and occupational therapy, the real life lessons came from McCarthy, and the other children receiving new hands.

Credit Avery Schneider / WBFO News
Many of the students in the Hand-in-Hand program came to help present the 3D-printed prosthetic hands to their recipients.

“I learned from the recipients that there’s always a different way to look at a problem, and there’s always a different way to solve it,” said Flood. “Just from seeing them navigate throughout the world, lacking a limb – that’s pretty amazing to me because I have a hard enough time doing some things with both of my arms and hands, and they’re sitting there like they’re conquering it with only one.”

Nathan Ramsey taught the students what life is like as both an occupational therapist and an amputee. He speaks from personal experience on both.

Ramsey said there are a lot of factors to consider in designing a prosthetic, such as affordability. Where a 3D-printed model might cost 50 dollars in parts and materials, a professionally developed device made of metal and carbon-fiber may cost thousands. In cases where insurance isn’t available to help cover it – like many of the children eNable helps around the world – 3D-printing may serve as an affordable alternative.

Because 3D-printed prosthetics are in their relative infancy, Ramsey said their functionality and durability doesn’t quite measure up with the professionally made prosthetics that benefit from decades of user feedback.

Credit Avery Schneider / WBFO News
Hand-in-Hand Lead Educator Ed Hawkins adjusts four year old Liam Hilliker's new 3D-printed hand.

“But, [there’s] the self-esteem factor and the social factor – 3D printing is cool,” said Ramsey. “These hands look cool. And you see these kids using these hands and they’ve got smiles on their faces, and they’re having fun, and other people are giving them all this positive attention. You can’t quantify the measurable impact that that has on a kid’s life.”

With McCarthy’s school year starting in just three weeks, she was asked what her friends are going to say.

“They’re going to say ‘It’s cool,’” she said. “I think they need to know that I can do more things with it.”

The "Hand-in-Hand" program was coordinated by Western New York STEM Hub and sponsored by AT&T Inc.

Avery began his broadcasting career as a disc jockey for WRUB, the University at Buffalo’s student-run radio station.
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