With the help of 3-D printers, Westtown School students develop prosthetic hands for children

Joy Baffone tries out her prosthetic hand with her mother Kathleen at the Westtown School. Westtown School students working in conjunction with Nemours/Alfred I. DuPont Hospital for Children are designing 3-D printed prosthetic hands for children.
Joy Baffone tries out her prosthetic hand with her mother Kathleen at the Westtown School. Westtown School students working in conjunction with Nemours/Alfred I. DuPont Hospital for Children are designing 3-D printed prosthetic hands for children. VINNY TENNIS - Daily Local News

Engineering students at Westtown School have developed robotic hands for two area children. As part of the school’s Hand Project, and in conjunction with Nemours/ Alfred I. DuPont Hospital for Children in Delaware, the high school students worked for months in Westtown’s Science Institute, customizing each hand so it would fit each child accordingly.

Steve Compton, teacher and director of Westtown Science Institute, said the project is a great opportunity for students to see the difference they can make in the real world. Using a 3-D printer to design the hand, the prosthesis is then fashioned using a variety of different kinds of plastics.

“We began conversations several years ago around how to make project-based learning more authentic and have opportunities for kids to do things beyond what happens at the school,” said Compton. “It has very little to do with the hand per se, it has to do with raising these kids up to understand that when you are doing real life work, all of a sudden you have to take on tasks you may never (have) thought of.”

The $13 million science center on campus opened up last January and includes an engineering lab where activities such as the Hand Project are possible, using cutting edge application tools like 3-D printers. Not long after opening, a request to make a hand came for 8-year-old Steele Songle, whose mother, Ellen, works at Westtown. Steele was born without a hand and Ellen asked if one could be made in the lab.

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“The kids take on projects that they pitch to me,” Compton said. “They have to present a project in terms of its functional feasibility and funding feasibility. If they pass all the tests, then they get to pursue the project for the semester. The group of kids decided to take on the Hand Project.”

After designing and building a hand for Steele, many more requests for hands came in. Compton said his team of eight students sat down to discuss what they could do. Students work on the project on their own time; after school, weekends and during the summer, to ensure the hands will fit the clients comfortably.

“When the work is for real clients, it doesn’t end. They feel compelled to continue to do it,” said Compton. “We knew Steele’s hand couldn’t be activated by his wrist action because he only had one tiny little bone instead of a wrist. A group of kids took on the project of creating a hand that could be driven by motors, so it would receive signals of electricity from Steele’s muscles. There are tiny motors attached to it and we have EMG electrodes that we place on his forearm and his bicep. When he flexes those muscles, the different muscles in his arms put out different signatures of electricity, and that will then go into a little computer that is part of the package. The computer recognizes which set of signals and will move the fingers of the hand according to a computer code. It’s more fine tunable but it’s a lot more complex.”

Joy Baffone, 6, was the next child fitted for a hand. Students spent several weeks designing, tailoring just for her wrist. Compton said Joy was the first client to be able to walk out of the science center with a hand.

Compton said he plans for the Hand Project to continue at the school for many years to come and has already identified next year’s team of students for the project. The students are eager to get started and have already discussed the direction the want to take the project in terms of coding, design and arm physiology studies.

“This is something now that will become part of the fabric of science at the school. Groups of kids working on these things, they do it not in class. They come in at night and on the weekends. Sometimes they get credit for it, sometimes they don’t. They get to take on open-ended projects that have a degree of possibility and in some cases probability of failing, and they just keep working hard at it. That is sort of the way the world works outside of school.”

Compton said he would like to develop a community based after-school program for underserved kids in the area, like the Boys and Girls Clubs of Delaware, and teach them how to work with 3-D printers.

“These things tend to grow and people get excited about it. I’ve spent most of my life as a teacher trying to convince students that they are more powerful than they even know. That happens when you are doing real work for real people. The mission of Westtown since 1799 has been to help kids grow up to be good stewards in the world, doing good work for other people while they are doing good things for themselves.”