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Students Build Arm, Little Girl Scoots

Seniors Fashion Prosthetic Forearm with 3-D Printer

Being born without a forearm has never slowed down Maeli Gottschalk. That is, until she got to the age when most kids yearn to ride a bicycle. Turns out she was only slowed temporarily, thanks to some students at Forest Hills Northern High School.

The students in robotics teacher Adam Zavislak’s class built the 4-year-old a custom hand with a forearm as their final senior project using a 3-D printer.

The first thing Maeli Gottschalk did when she got her robotic arm was hop on her scooter (courtesy photo)
The first thing Maeli Gottschalk did when she got her robotic arm was hop on her scooter (courtesy photo)

It started over Spring Break, when Laura Gottschalk read a news article about Enabling the Future, a global network that connects those who need prosthetic hands with individuals and organizations that can build them.

Gottschalk, a Northern Hills Middle School math teacher, forwarded the article to Zavislak to ask if he thought the organization might be a good fit for getting an arm for her daughter. Zavislak’s seniors had just designed a simple prosthetic hand that lacked the functionality of the Enabling the Future models, but he went one better and asked them if they were willing to try to build a more sophisticated version.

“We weren’t 100 percent it was going to work, but I showed them the plans and they were like, ‘Yeah, we can do that,'” recalled Zavislak, who also teaches robotics at Northern Hills Middle School.

Tedious Process, Big Payoff

The design of the red, white and blue arm — chosen by Maeli for its superhero affiliations — came from Enabling the Future. Part of its mission is to share designs at no cost to those who volunteer to make them. The unit’s 25 individual pieces took about 20 hours to print, and some needed to be printed more than once.

“The hardest part was the waiting, the days we were just printing pieces,” said Alex Koth, who will pursue a degree in architecture starting in the fall.

“Some pieces took a full day to print, and we would come in when they were finished and see they’d broken,” said Matthew Holden, who plans to major in biomedical engineering in college. “Some pieces took a few tries to get right.”

Maeli with her scooter. Next step: a real bicycle
Maeli with her scooter. Next step: a real bicycle

When the prosthetic was ready to go home with Maeli, Holden and Koth, plus students Mitchell Dewey, Alex Dolce and Connor Matulaitis, had about 40 hours invested in the project.

The cost of a basic traditional prosthetic arm is about $8,000 without insurance, Gottschalk said. The cost of the plastic, braided fishing line, Velcro straps, elastic and super-cool glow-in-the-dark joint beads for the one students constructed for Maeli: about $50.

“She has one of those other (prosthetic) arms, but at the end they are like pincers, not fingers,” Gottschalk explained. “She never wanted to wear that one. This one she asks to wear. It’s a huge deal that she’s so attached to it.”

And unlike the traditional model, which did not help Maeli keep her balance on a bicycle because she still had to use her forearm to brace the handlebars, the “fingers” of the student-built arm allow her to grip instead.

“I bend my elbow, and it just works like this,” Maeli explained before she pushed off on her pink scooter.

“It’s cool to see her so happy about it,” Zavislak said.


Enabling the Future

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Morgan Jarema
Morgan Jarema
Morgan Jarema is a reporter and copy editor, covering East Grand Rapids, Forest Hills and Northview. She is a Grand Rapids native and a product of Grand Rapids Public Schools, including Brookside and West Leonard elementaries, City Middle/High School and Ottawa Hills. She found her tribe in journalism in 1997 and has never wanted to do anything but write. For 15 years she was a freelance journalist for The Grand Rapids Press, covering local schools and government, religion, business, home & garden and lifestyles. She and her husband, John, think even those without kiddos should be invested in their local schools and made to feel a part of them. Read Morgan's full bio or email Morgan.


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