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The City Journals

Wasatch Jr. High students use 3D printer to make and donate prosthetic devices

Jan 21, 2019 01:02PM ● By Heather Lawrence

Students at Wasatch Jr. High work together to assemble prosthetic hands printed on teacher Ben Torgerson’s 3D printer. The class donated all the prosthetics. (Photo courtesy Ben Torgerson)

By Heather Lawrence | [email protected]

For many teachers, the class time between semesters is hard to fill with meaningful lessons. Ben Torgerson, a science teacher at Wasatch Jr. High, used the time to teach his students to make prosthetic devices on a 3D printer and then donated them to people in need.

Torgerson found the project in 2016 through a nonprofit called e-NABLE that networks people who need prosthetics with people who can print them on their personal 3D printers. Torgerson owned a small 3D printer and wanted to work on the project with his son.

“I decided to print some parts for hands on my small personal printer to see if it was even a possibility,” Torgerson said. When it worked, he got excited thinking about how to use this project as a teaching tool for his students.

“I saw this as a really good way to get my students involved in doing something with their science skills and knowledge. I wanted to show them that science could be used to do good in the world, and that no matter your age you can help others,” Torgerson said.

The e-NABLE site provides willing donors with the specs needed for the devices. “A typical prosthetic for a kid costs $10,000 after insurance has paid their part. Then, as the child grows, he or she needs a new one. It’s very costly. People who go through the e-NABLE program get prosthetics donated for free. It’s life-changing,” said Torgerson.

Torgerson saw the potential to do more good if he had access to a bigger printer. So he tried a fundraiser. “I went on the Donors Choose website where teachers can set up funding campaigns for their classrooms. I set one up for a printer that would allow a larger print volume and sent the call out to parents at 9:30 at night. By noon the next day, the donation request was filled,” Torgerson said.  

Torgerson was able to buy a $400 3D printer that is now owned by the school. When more people wanted to donate, Torgerson set up another campaign, this time for the plastic filament the 3D printer uses as its medium.

The kids were so excited about the project that Torgerson looked into local chapters of e-NABLE. When he found out there weren’t any, he started one at the school. As far as Torgerson knows, it’s the only chapter in the Intermountain West.

Torgerson’s fellow teachers took notice of the good he was doing. Principal John Anderson, who approved the Donors Choose requests, was very supportive. Mindy Wallace, an English teacher at the school, was impressed with his real-world application approach.

“Many teachers have to get creative and write grants to help fund classroom projects. But what I really loved about Mr. Torgerson’s project is that it provides students with a meaningful service component that goes beyond the classroom,” Wallace said.

With the higher-volume printer and enough funds for filaments, Torgerson’s students kept churning out the parts. “The science is all open source (free online) to print out the specs. So we recently printed parts for 42 hands. The students assembled them and then donated them,” Torgerson said.

It turns out assembling a prosthetic hand is an ideal teaching tool for standard curriculum. “It was a great way to teach science vocabulary, anatomy and the way that joints and tendons work together to make a hand move,” Torgerson said.

Torgerson sees this initial exposure to 3D printing and scientific philanthropy as something that can be of real use to his students in their future careers. “These projects bridge the gap between science and technology. There really isn’t a place for 3D printing yet in the science curriculum, but it is an up and coming force in science. Companies in Utah are working on 3D printing human cells and implants. And parents are happy to get their kids involved in something extra and expose them to this technology,” Torgerson said.

For more information, see enablingthefuture.org or donorschoose.org.