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e-NABLEing Kids Through 3D-Printed Prostheses

By Rich Lehrer
e-NABLEing Kids Through 3D-Printed Prostheses

An education revolution is occurring in a small number of classrooms, makerspaces, and technology departments around the world. While many schools are promoting a greater reliance on virtual experiences for students and developing something akin to a “technology for technology’s sake” mentality, a volunteer group of tech aficionados, hackers, humanitarians, designers, and engineers is turning the ed-tech world on its ear and redefining our sense of the potential of technology to provide meaningful and real-world experiences for students.
“e-NABLE,” a group of volunteers committed to globally crowdsourcing the design, production, and dissemination of cheap, 3D-printed prostheses, is empowering people around the world to create tools to help others. Teachers searching for truly authentic projects for their students are being drawn to this work in droves.
In 2011, South African carpenter Richard Van As experienced a tragic accident in which he cut off the fingers on his right hand. During his recovery, Van As came across an online video in which American prop maker Ivan Owen presented a large, articulated metal hand. From this, a partnership was born. Collaborating from their respective countries, the two men created a cheap metal prosthetic for Van As and realized the potential of the solution they had devised.
Following an in-person meeting, Van As and Owen continued to work together, eventually producing the first open-source 3D-designed and printable prosthetic device for children born with upper limb differences. A successful trial with a young boy named Liam was followed by a video of the project that went viral. The seeds of the revolution had been sown.
Drawing inspiration from this initial collaboration, Rochester Institute of Technology professor Jon Schull created “e-NABLE” in 2013. This worldwide movement now consists of over 6,100 passionate individuals. It centers on the development and production of new devices and the matching of those possessing 3D printers with those in need of a prosthetic, witnessing a near exponential growth in interest over the past two years.
Not surprisingly, teachers were among the first to see the potential in this movement to light creative fires and unlock the desire in others to “do good” in the process. Since its inception, e-NABLE has attracted the attention of well over 500 educators from formal and informal settings around the world who have found in this “mechanical hand maker movement” a powerful combination of STEM, design, service, innovation, and project-based learning. It is a means to inspire and motivate a generation of problem solvers and “humanitarian hackers” committed to making a difference.
In response to increasing interest, the organization has recently created the e-NABLE Educators’ Exchange or e3STEAM, which seeks to create a global collaborative community of like-minded educators, develop an open-source online repository of best e-NABLE educational practices, and provide opportunities for young people around the world to become inspired by and involved in the “design for good” movement.
I am the coordinator of the e-NABLE Educators’ Exchange. In 2013, my 8th-grade students at Brookwood School in Massachusetts and I mounted a project in which we produced a 3D-printed hand for my son, Max—a profound experience for all involved. As a National Faculty member of project-based learning (PBL) purveyor the Buck Institute for Education, I can also attest that in this work we have found an exemplar of the transformative power of PBL.
Additionally, having taught overseas, I am convinced that international schools have a potentially critical role to play in the global scaling of this initiative. The ability to involve their students in the creation of cheap, 3D-printed mechanical hands and arms while producing deep educational experiences for all involved may prove to be an excellent fit for any international schools looking to offer opportunities for their students to connect to and collaborate with their host countries in meaningful ways.
I encourage all educators who are looking to provide their students with profound and valuable learning experiences to connect with e-NABLE, whether or not they have access to a 3D printer. For more information about becoming involved with e-NABLE, visit, contact me personally at [email protected], or view the recording of the official launch of the Educators’ Exchange that took place via Google Hangout On Air on August 26th. Not only is this revolution being televised … it is also being 3D printed!

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