Eight-year-old Beau Wild is thrilled to be able to pick up a ball. He’s also thrilled with the “robot hand” that allows him to do it.
Born with Sturge-Weber syndrome, Wild is unable to use his right hand. When he was 2, his doctors were able to stop his life-threatening seizures, but to do so, they had to interfere with a brain pathway that connected to his hand.
His parents, Lora and Brian Wild, have tried many therapies to restore the use of their son’s hand, but progress has been limited.
“Hands heal really slowly,” Brian Wild said.
In the meantime, they want their son to be able to do things that other boys his age can do. When the Wilds saw on their local news in Baraboo, Wis., that a sophomore at a school in San Antonio had produced a prosthesis for a local 6-year-old, they wondered if such a model would help their son.
That school was the School of Science and Technology (SST) and the sophomore was Justin Cantu, 16.
SST is a charter school focusing on science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) founded in 2005 by a group of University of Texas at San Antonio professors including Turgay Korkmaz. The professors sought to address the lack of STEM-educated professionals in San Antonio and agreed that middle school and high school would be the right way to start.
“We decided this would be a good contribution to the community,” Korkmaz said.
In addition to intensive STEM education, students at SST are taught to value diversity and look for ways to improve their communities. Cantu’s project is a celebration of the values at the heart of SST, as expressed by Korkmaz.
Cantu produced a mechanical hand for a boy named Zack Robbins using an open-source design for 3-D printers called e-NABLE. The lightweight, low-cost molded plastic hand gave Robbins, 6, the ability to grip, and, as he put it, “carry my milk and my lunch box at the same time.”
The project started in Cantu’s Advanced Placement computer science class. He had wanted to combine the e-NABLE design with Emotiv software, which would allow it to be controlled by brain waves. Other SST students are working on a wheelchair connected to the Emotiv software.
In the end, the Emotiv software element did not come to fruition, but Robbins was able to use his gold e-NABLE hand as it was intended. Seeing Robbins use the hand for the first time, Cantu was surprised at his own emotions.
“I didn’t expect to be so heartfelt about it,” he said.
Robbins’ joy took the internet by storm and eventually made it onto the local news in Baraboo, and into the home of the Wild family.
Artists Ivan and Jen Owen started e-NABLE almost by accident in their garage, while making a functional puppet glove for a steam punk convention. A man in South Africa who had lost several fingers saw a video of the glove on YouTube and asked if they would be willing to produce another one. From there, the collaboration grew, and e-NABLE works with volunteers around the world to provide free prosthetic fingers and hands. The open-source software is available to anyone with a 3-D printer.
“The e-NABLE project and the community behind it have proven time and time again, that you don’t have to do big things to change the world or make a difference in the lives of others,” Jen Owen said. “Giving a little bit of your time, sharing your resources and working with others who are equally as passionate about making an impact, can and will, change lives.”
Designers and engineers have refined and tinkered with the design to provide new options. Families can locate e-NABLE partners around the world and request a prosthesis. The cost to produce the apparatus is between $35-$50 for materials, and donors to e-NABLE cover those costs so that families can receive the products free of charge.
The low cost has also made it an ideal project for STEM classes. Schools like SST are always looking for ways to challenge students with real-world problems, so that they can learn the relevance of robotics, engineering, and physics.
“For the classrooms that have been able to create a device and gift it to a recipient … they get the satisfaction of seeing or knowing that their efforts and newly obtained knowledge has made a real life change in another fellow human being,” Owen said.
While the recipient will no doubt be impacted in a positive way, Owen said, it’s equally true that for every hand created by a classroom, there are 15-40 young minds that are inspired. She hopes their imaginations will be opened to investigate other ways their ideas that might change the world someday.
For Cantu, this part of the project had a personal connection. He has watched his aunt and uncle in Hawaii struggle to keep their teenage son in a prosthetic leg after a shark attack. Insurance coverage and cost vary widely, but his aunt and uncle have paid about $25,000 so far keeping up with their son’s growth and damage to the leg, Cantu said. His cousin is growing and active and has gone through more than prothesis. Cantu hopes that one day the designs will expand to lower extremities as well, so that kids like his cousin can benefit.
The younger a child is, the tougher they are on their limbs and the faster they grow. The e-NABLE prosthesis is not intended to be a final fit, but a temporary aid. That also fits with the Wilds’ goals for their son.
“He was given two hands, and we want him to be able to use them,” Lora Wild said.
He’s figured out how to make the most of the immobile hand, but each additional movement increases his ability to accomplish what he sets out to do.
“We thought this would give him a little function,” Brian Wild said.
The family worked with SST teacher Murat Soruc to figure out the best design and precise measurements. Two weeks after receiving the e-NABLE device, Beau Wild was making progress. It takes time to perfect, because the mechanics of the e-NABLE hand require some coordination, but he is already excited.
“He’s telling everybody everybody about his ‘robot hand,’” Brian Wild said.
Another plus for the design is the ability for kids to choose fun colors and visual elements to make their new hand something “cool.” Beau Wild now occasionally refers to himself as Anakin Skywalker, his parents said.
Suroc is now working with the Wilds to accommodate Beau’s immobile hand, as the current e-NABLE design works best in the absence of a hand.
They can experiment and tinker over Skype, continuing to seek solutions that will allow the child more movement while he continues therapy. His e-NABLE hand, and the community of support that brought it to him, are a way station of hope in a lifelong journey.