Student creates prosthetic hands in MakerSpace

August 11, 2016

Using 3D printers in the “MakerSpace” of  Dion Student Center at Saint Michael’s College, art and education major Kelsey Buchanan ’18  wants to offer a helping hand to neighbors in need.

Lately, “helping hand” has special literal meaning for Buchanan. All summer she has been communicating with a group called Enabling the Future or “e-NABLE,” whose website says it is a  “global network of volunteers who are using their 3D printers, design skills and personal time to create free 3D printed prosthetic hands for those in need with the goal of providing them to underserved populations around the world.”

Using just a 3D printer, fishing wire, e-NABLE blueprints from online and her own skill, Buchanan in recent months made two prosthetic-hand prototypes with MakerSpace equipment. The first three-finger version design is named the Odysseus model or “Ody” for short; the second more intricate five-finger version is “Raptor Reload.”

Once she works out any possible kinks on the second version, Buchanan plans to send it to e-NABLE officials in hopes they will give her a green light to print similar hands for specific real people identified by the group as potentially benefiting from the prosthetics while being unable to afford more sophisticated medical versions.

Ideally from her perspective, that would be a child in the greater Burlington area. Her immediate plan is to recruit an informal campus club of interested fellow students this fall who can constitute a Saint Michael’s e-NABLE chapter, which she would like to be ongoing. Several friends already have expressed interest, she said, and Buchanan has spoken with students in already-established chapters at others colleges, particularly at Siena College in upstate New York near her home.

“I hope when I graduate in two years, the group we form this year can continue and be my legacy at the College,” says Buchanan, whose career ambition is to teach art in elementary school and eventually become a principal. “My personal goal this year is to have a child open up a hand on Christmas morning — and I think we can definitely do it.”

The two hands she made this summer are relatively basic, and yet would be efficiently utilitarian for potential recipients, as she explained and demonstrated in the MakerSpace recently: “The fishing wire moves the fingers and elastic keeps it firm in the spot, so when you bend the wrist, it will clamp down,” she says. “A child who only has a partial palm will stick that into the top section, and when they bend the wrist, it will make this open and close. These are wrist-powered but we can make them elbow-powered and shoulder-powered too.”

A lover of both children and animals, Buchanan was excited to land a summer job this year helping at Chittenden County Humane Society’s “Camp Paw-Paw,” which teaches children to interact humanely with animals. But she needed a worthwhile concurrent on-campus summer project relating to her studies in order to qualify for campus housing. “My hometown of Schuylerville, NY, near Albany would have been too far a commute,” she says.

The hand-project idea came from Education Professor Mary Beth Doyle in an Adolescent Development class that Buchanan took last year. “She’d heard about e-NABLE and suggested someone take this and run with it, so I raised my hand and said, ‘I got this,’” Buchanan says. “I’ve been working at it pretty diligently all summer, whether that’s writing grants or printing things or communicating with other e-NABLE chapters.”

Recently she received a grant she had applied for this summer from R. M. Dalrymple Co. Inc., a gas-station supply company run by a person who heard her talking at church one weekend this summer back home about her e-NABLE work and told her to send him a proposal. She said funding might cover costs of conferences for her and other students joining the effort to 3D-print prosthetic hands so they can take it to the next level. She also has launched a “gofundme” page for any donations:

On a typical week day this summer, Buchanan has worked at Camp Paw-Paw and then come to MakerSpace to work several evening hours, often with help from Eric Roy, staff technical specialist for the facility that includes a laser cutter, 3D printers, digital scanner, vinyl cutter, and multiple sewing machines, among other equipment. “I’ve been allowing Kelsey to learn on her own terms, and I’ve been here as a resource whenever she has questions or to do basic safety and equipment training,” says Roy, “but ultimately Kelsey has been taking the lead with the direction of this and I’m hoping this will continue to maintain that student-driven focus.”

He wants the MakerSpace to be “a safe space for students to take calculated risks and experiment,” and the hand project is a great example of possibilities. “I’m hoping this can be a launching pad for multiple groups that will continue to have an immediate impact on the quality of lives of people.”

“One thing Kelsey has taught me so much about this summer as an education major is how to approach different learning styles,” says Roy, who explained that his big push for the coming semester will be more peer-to-peer education. “Kelsey’s done an amazing job working with faculty as well as students to take advantage of the tool sets we have here.” Roy brings long previous experience in both computer sciences and shop work, “and this is the convergence of the two,” says the Williston native, who helped oversee the Generator Burlington Community MakerSpace before coming to the College.

Buchanan says she’s had friends representing diverse majors at Saint Michael’s, from chemistry to psychology, already express interest in joining her project come fall. Their first task will be to get the word out and have an organizational meeting. “I didn’t know how to 3D-print or laser-cut or vinyl cut before this past semester and now I’ve created two hands, so it’s definitely something anyone and everyone can do,” she says.

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