BIE « site menu
Tracker Pixel for Entry

by Rich Lehrer
National Faculty

Top 10 related resources »

Topic tags:


April 28, 2016
3D Printed Prosthetic Projects: Front Line of a Disruptive Revolution

by Rich Lehrer
National Faculty

Over the past ten years, I have become increasingly interested in the potential for authentic PBL experiences to increase student engagement and learning. These are exciting times in many schools where a vibrant maker culture is meeting innovative technologies to facilitate these experiences while allowing students the chance to create impressive authentic products (presentations, apps, PSA’s, etc.). In recent years, more and more schools have hoped for this same potential in 3D printing. In many settings, however, printers sit gathering dust a year after purchase for want of educational uses for this exciting new technology.

Enter South African carpenter Richard Van As and American props creator Ivan Owen, who came together in 2013 to design and create a prosthetic device to replace the fingers Van As had lost in a tragic workshop accident. Little could they have known that with the first 3D printable prosthetic they designed they were laying the foundation for some of the most authentic educational experiences possible.

An innovative and collaborative open source community
Since the creation of that original device, over 8300 volunteers have joined the online, open source community called e-NABLE, which crowd sources, produces, and distributes hyper affordable, easily personalized prosthetic devices for children with upper limb differences.

Additionally, hundreds of formal and informal educators have also come to this work, seeing in it the potential for transformative Project Based Learning for their students. I found this out first hand when my Brookwood Middle School students and I worked together in 2013 to build a device for my son. Here's a Project Design Overview for this project.

A powerful example for students of the power of 3D printing
The potential to offer students a chance to print and assemble a device that might be used by an actual recipient has proven a powerful introduction to the maker movement for many classrooms. Teachers typically begin their journey by either accessing and printing the open source device files, or by reaching out to the Enable Community Foundation for information about how to become involved.

Schools are first asked to register as a new member, print off, and then send in a test hand for assessment of the quality of the print and build. Once approved, schools are matched with an individual recipient or one of a number of global hand projects that are springing up and the task of printing, building, and sending off specific devices has begun.


Opportunities for authentic Project Based Learning
The creation of prosthetic devices for children with upper limb differences is providing rich PBL opportunities for K-12 students, especially when conducted within a context of other meaningful projects. The curricular tie-ins range from anatomy/physiology, history of technology, inventions, disabilities, service initiatives etc. Among the hallmarks of Gold Standard PBL that working with the ECF brings to classrooms are:

  • Authentic student work that results in a functional public product for an actual user
  • Opportunities for students to exercise voice and choice as they decide on such things as devices to build and ways to customize them
  • Chances for students’ classmates, teachers, and, in some cases, recipients to offer critique on the devices
  • Deep collaboration opportunities for students
  • The chance for device builders to share their understanding and work with others, in and out of their school communities

New and exciting directions for teachers
Exciting directions are also being pursued by particularly driven Enable teachers who are taking this movement in unanticipated directions. From customizing devices to reflect recipients’ interests, to mobilizing other schools through hand building challenges, to adding automation to existing devices, to leading a class through a “hand free” day, teachers are pushing the envelope with respect to how they are connecting their students to this highly engaging work. And Enable is embracing these innovations, choosing to crowd source much of their educational resources to interested teachers in much the same way they crowd source new device designs.

Students as designers…and inventors
Increasingly, we are seeing schools that are leveraging interest in Enable as a vehicle for providing opportunities for students to become designers themselves. The Enable devices that are posted on the ECF website, which are the end product of countless iterations and revisions, may be too complicated for most middle or even high school students to effectively redesign. However, there has been a recent increase in the number of schools looking to involve their students in the creation of unique components or aesthetic modifications. Recognizing the interest in having students become involved in the designing side of Enable, the organization has begun encouraging schools to have students design so-called “task specific” attachments for several of the devices, providing students with the opportunity to innovate and potentially invent a useful “add-on” to existing devices.

A gateway to authentic and global design
Enable projects offer schools a glimpse into the profoundly authentic and educative possibilities of their 3D printers and, once engaged, many schools often see greater student interest in using 3D designing programs and printers to create real solutions to problems once this potential been revealed through this work.

One other exciting recent development for Enable is the interest being seen in the global scaling of this work as 3D printing technology spreads around the world. In addition to the potential for Enable device to address an unmet need for cheap prosthetics in developing countries, with a growing number of schools embracing this technology comes increased chances for deep and meaningful international collaborations between schools.

Without a doubt, these are exciting times in the fields of personalized medicine, new technologies, and educational innovation. Enable is at the forefront of an exciting disruptive revolution and schools have a meaningful role to play. Any educators interested in coming on board should investigate our Enable Educators’ Exchange or contact Rich Lehrer directly.


Do you have questions, comments, or tips how to use 3D printing in a PBL classroom? Please enter them below.


[Leave a new comment]