The idea for the project originated in April 2013, when Science teacher Rich Lehrer saw a posting on the Facebook page of a colleague in Brazil. The write-up was about a South African designer and an American engineer who collaborated to make a 3D printable mechanical prosthesis for children born with Amniotic Band Syndrome (ABS), a condition with which Lehrer’s three-year-old son Max was born.
Conversations with Richard Van As, the South African creator of the Robohand, soon followed and sparked Lehrer’s idea for the club. “I realized with a 3D printer, moldable thermoplastic, metallic hardware, and a group of motivated students, we could try to build our very own Robohand for Max.”
The Robohand, which is entirely mechanical and uses no electricity, operates through a system of cords and bungies. When the wearer's wrist bends the fingers clench and when it is straightened the fingers release.
Ten students signed up for Brookwood's Robohand Club last fall and set off to learn about ABS, study Robohand mechanics, search for a 3D printer, and track down the thermoplastic and hardware. After learning about Governor’s new 3D printer, club members reached out to David Oxton, head of the school’s Fine Arts Department which is home to the 3D printer. Oxton in turn put them in touch with Arjun Bhatnagar, a senior at the Academy who heads the student-run 3D printing program. Both Arjun and Oxton enthusiastically agreed to help, offering to print the pieces and work with the Robohand Club when the time came to build the hands.
The next several months were spent doing extensive research and planning, Skyping with Arjun, and included a visit to Governor’s to see the printer and sample fingers. At times the work extended well beyond the two school's campuses. For example, Max's hand surgeon, Dr. Peter Waters of Boston Children's Hospital, was intrigued from the start. He put the Club in contact with Rusty Miller of Boston Brace who donated hundreds of dollars of the much-needed orthoplastic to the project. Rick Chute, Brookwood’s head of facilities, worked with the students to figure out the instructions and determine the necessary hardware to order.
Finally it was time to build. Arjun and David Oxton came to Brookwood on Friday, March 28, and together with eight students in the Brookwood club began constructing two hands. A second building session was held on Saturday, April 5.
During each of the two meetings, Max visited the classroom to try the robohand on for size. Click to watch Max Lehrer's initial use of the robohand: RoboMax Video.
“We still have lots to do but we are all energized by our first success,” shares Lehrer, who adds the experience felt like project based learning at its best. “Much of our time has been spent identifying problems, exploring options, finding partners, trying solutions and making innovative uses of technology, from Skyping with an engineer in South Africa to 3D printing components of the hand.”
Lehrer plans to the continue the Robohand Club next year, working to modify the hand for specific tasks in order to help other children with ABS. Richard Van As, of South Africa, with whom Lehrer shared the video of Max and the hand, has offered again to Skype with the group to give them some tips on next steps to make the hand even better. “We are so super proud of the entire collaboration,” commented Van As on his Robohand Facebook page.