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Students use 3-D printer to make prosthetic hands for kids

Katelyn McCarthy, Liam Hilliker and Caedan Muldoon have two things in common:

Each was born missing a hand.

And each will receive a prosthetic hand, thanks to some four dozen middle and high school students learning about science and how it can change people’s lives.

The three children – Katelyn, 9, Liam, 5, and Caedan, 4 – will receive a fully-functioning, 3-D fabricated hand, as part of the Hand in Hand summer program involving 45 local students in grades 7 through 12.

Over the course of nine days at Health Sciences Charter School on Ellicott Street, the students learn a little biology, along with some math and engineering, to create the three customized prosthetic hands using a 3-D printer.

Thursday was the big day.

The students got their first chance to meet Katelyn, Liam and Caeden and measure them for their 3-D printed hands, which will be completed in August.

“It takes too long,” Liam told to his mother, Kelly. “I want mine now.”

Hand in Hand is funded by AT&T in partnership with WNY STEM Hub, a nonprofit created to expose students to the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics – particularly girls and minorities from high-needs urban schools, who are underrepresented in those fields.

The program uses designs made available by e-Nable, an online community that uses 3-D printers to create free fabricated hands and arms for people all over the world.

The students will make the prototypes, then turn them over to the A.W. Miller company in East Aurora, which will make a more finished, durable product.

So often in school, students ask how they will actually apply what they learn, said Ed Hawkins, a technology teacher at Sweet Home High School who is teaching the summer program along with Leif Johnson and Patrick Kesterson.

This project, Hawkins said, is a perfect example.

“Doing something real like this is a huge, huge deal for these kids – and me too,” Hawkins said. “And it gives them a real opportunity to do something good for somebody else.”

It’s pretty cool, admitted Jamar Peay.

“I gotta put on my best effort, because someone has to have a hand,” said Peay, 16, a homeschooled student from Buffalo.

Meeting the three kids made Antwan Diggs feel good about what he was doing.

“I can definitely see myself doing something like this,” said Diggs, 12, a student at Tapestry Charter School.

Three-D printed hands have come onto the scene within the past five years and their future is promising, said Nathan Ramsey, an occupational therapist at the Center for Assistive Technology at the University at Buffalo.

Their functionality and fit don’t measure up to the professional-grade prosthetics made by trained experts, said Ramsey, who was born without his left hand. But, he said, it’s providing new opportunities to people who may not otherwise have access to professionally-made prosthetics, which can run as much as $80,000.

A 3-D hand, meanwhile, will probably cost $10 in plastic, Hawkins said.

“It’s still new,” Ramsey said, “They’re going through a very, very sped-up version of the history of prosthetics, and I’m expecting as time goes on the products will start to bear more resemblance to professionally made devices.”

Hawkins sat Thursday morning with his team of students, who measured Katelyn for her new 3-D printed hand. Her mother, Amy, of Derby, sat next to her.

“What do you like to do?” Hawkins asked Katelyn, a fourth-grader at Southtowns Catholic School in Lake View.

“I like to play,” she told him.

“Somebody told me you like to ride a bike,” Hawkins said.

She nodded.

“Is that kind of hard to do with one hand?” he asked.

Katelyn was measured for a 3-D printed hand that will fit on her right arm just below her elbow. Flexing her elbow will pull strings that control the fingers on the hand, allowing it to grip.

Similar devices will be made to fit Liam's left arm, as well as Caeden's left arm.

“He was excited,” said Sean Muldoon, Caedan’s father. “He wanted an Iron Man one.”

Caedan, who is from Lackawanna, has had other prosthetic hands, but kids grow out of them quickly, his father explained. Not long ago, a family member out of town made Caeden a 3-D printed hand, but it didn’t quite fit right.

The 4-year-old figures out how to do things on his own – ride a bike, reeling in a fishing line – but his parents want him to have the opportunity to use a 3-D printed hand now so that he’s not afraid to use them as he gets older.

“I like the idea of this, because that’s his future,” Muldoon said.

As for Liam, he only had an assistive device for a short period as an infant. Still, being without a left hand hasn’t stopped him yet.

“He’s unstoppable,” said his mother, Kelly, from Irving.

While his mother doesn’t expect Liam to use the 3-D hand 24 hours a day, she and her husband wanted him to be able to use it for school or for tasks that require some balance, like riding his bike or pumping while on a swing.

“He can’t wait,” his mother said. “He thinks he’s going to get it today.”

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