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Helping hands

Teacher's class builds prosthetics for kids

Twenty-five new hands and counting.That’s the tally for the eighth-grade students in teacher Gavin Sikorski’s STEM class at Southmoreland Middle School, in Scottdale, Pa.

For three years now, Sikorski’s students have used STEM concepts and 3D printing skills to make prosthetic hands for children from around the world who have symbrachydactyly, a congenital abnormality that results in limb abnormalities.

“My job is to teach my students concepts in science, technology, engineering and math, and to relate those ideas to the outside world,” says Sikorski ’13, a graduate of Cal U’s technology education program.“ I was looking for a project that would make a difference not only in my students’ lives, but also in someone else’s life.

”Sikorski turned to the internet for ideas. He found a video of someone using a prosthetic hand made on a 3D printer and began to do his own research. Soon he was testing concepts and designs and creating lesson plans to complement the project.

“After a lot of digging on social media, I also found a few posts from people who were seeking ways to get help for their children who needed hands. I thought, ‘We could be a volunteer organization for these families and donate the hands for free.’”

STEM teacher Gavin Sikorski '13 shows his eighth grade class how the prosthetic hand they produced will operate.

STEM WITH A PURPOSE

Sikorski developed biology and genetics lessons to teach students about how a body’s limbs work and about symbrachydactyly. Math lessons teach students to take proper measurements so the artificial hands fit and function properly. Engineering skills ensure components are assembled correctly.

The fingers on the prosthetics don’t move independently. Elastic bands and strings allow the plastic fingers to move.

“The hand can perform basic functions,” Sikorski explains. “Children can grab a bike handle, open the fridge, hold a towel to wash dishes, hold a knife and fork. We take simple tasks like holding a glass or opening a door for granted. Imagine what a difference that makes to them.”

Just before they went home for summer break, Sikorski’s students finished hands for two children, ages 2 and 6.The hands, which cost about $25 each to produce, are custom-designed to reflect the recipients’ interests. These kids requested Daniel Tiger and Iron Man themes.

Sikorski divides his class into teams to manage the process. The communication team handles logo and packaging designs. The assembly team creates the hand. The presentation team takes photos for a montage that documents the production from start to finish. The students also thank the family for the opportunity and provide some tips for using the new device.

“Everything starts as a base size, and we increase it based on the … measurements they send us,” explains student Hannah Burnsworth. “We draw the hand, and the child gets to pick what he likes.

“It’s interesting, in case I need a future job. I like how challenging it is.”

“I like making videos,” says Lilly Richter, a member of the presentation team. “You get to play around with photo-editing and skills like that. We believe each family should get to see what happens to make the hand.”

Students learn how to load the 3D printer with monofilament.

'GIVE SOMETHING BACK'

Requests for the prosthetic hands have come from across the United States, around the world and right down the road: One of the most memorable came from a kindergarten student in the Southmoreland School District.

Another one landed in Sikorski’s inbox – in French. With an assist from Google’s translation tool, he connected with the
family and his class created a customized hand with a Mickey Mouse design.

In 2019, Sikorski was recognized as an All-Star Teacher by the Pittsburgh Pirates and Pirates Charities, Chevron and the Grable Foundation. He plans to use the $1,000 award to purchase more 3D printers, “so nobody has to wait to use one in class.”

He also was one of 13 Pennsylvania educators to receive a Teacher as Hero Award from the National Liberty Museum in Philadelphia. Sikorski is proud of the awards and grateful to Southmoreland for its ongoing support of STEM education. But he also finds great satisfaction in the deeper lessons his students learn.

“The kids get to give something back, instead of just having me ask them to do or learn something for my class,” he says.

“We had two occasions where we were able to deliver the hands personally. One family drove five hours from New York to pick theirs up. Those were very cool experiences.”

“It was fascinating to learn how to do it,” says Alayna Cross, from the assembly team. “And it was a very fun experience to get to help someone. That’s my favorite.”

— By Wendy Mackall, Communications director at Cal U

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