Middle-school girls creating 3D hand for child

Gabby Hetler holds a prototype 3D printed hand

Gabby Hetler played on the floor in the Valleywood Middle School’s media center. She quickly turned pages in a book, nibbled a snack and gamely posed for photos.

“She’s feisty and she is a typical, sassy 3-year-old,” said her mother, Kellie Hetler. “She loves Minnie Mouse; snacks; her big sister, Addy; and playing outside.”

Kellie Hetler arrives at the Valleywood media center with daughter Gabby, 3

Gabby has what Hetler refers to as “limb differences.” She has Duane-radial ray syndrome and was born without radius bones in her arms. Her forearm bones are short, and she has finger abnormalities and no thumbs. She is also deaf and has limited eye movement. “She uses her pinkies for everything,” said her mother.

Though watching Gabby use those pinkies is impressive, Valleywood students are creating her a 3D printed orthopedic hand to help her complete tasks requiring a pincer grasp — the movement made when picking up things with the thumb and pointer finger.

“She can’t really do anything pinching wise, because she doesn’t have the ability to,” Hetler said.

Last fall, students raised money by hosting a Community Harvest Festival to purchase a 3D printer, which uses Blender software. Since then, they have learned to design orthopedic hands and completed two prototypes.

To plan the final design for Gabby’s hand, seventh graders Gabby Mosley and Amaya Eggleston and eighth graders Jaleah Elton, Jayla Procter and Natalie Bruinooge met the little girl while Hetler told her story.

“I am so excited for this,” said Natalie. “My little sister has developmental issues also, so I love to help kids and people who need extra help. I know buying things like this can be super expensive.”

Devoted to the Task

The girls were the core group of students involved. They volunteered countless hours learning about design and coding, becoming skilled at using the printer, said NJHS adviser Bobbijo Zoerhof, who taught them the basics.

“They are the cream of the crop. They can problem solve; they take direction. They even are teaching me,” Zoerhof said. “I really just introduced it to them, then I kind of stood back and was hands off… Now they are onto measurements for true life situations.”

Gabby Hetler, 3, uses her pinky to turn a page

Added Troy VanderLaan, Valleywood dean of academic affairs, “They used their growth-mindset to solve some pretty intense, real-world problems. I’m so proud of how they rallied together.”

During Gabby’s visit, students measured her arms and wrists to determine the size she will need. They also taped their own thumbs down to their palms and tried to complete tasks to experience having limited use of their hands.

“It’s pretty awesome doing this, because I’m helping another human being that needs a hand,” Gabby Mosley said. “It’s easier for them to function if they have a nice hand to use.”

Natalie showed Hetler the printing process and the prototypes they’ve made.

“It’s pretty amazing. It’s crazy that they can even do that,” Hetler said, noting that the hand could help Gabby meet developmental milestones like using scissors.

Students decided on a Minnie Mouse design for the hand. The goal is to have it completed before school is out for the summer.

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Erin Albanese
Erin Albanese has worked as a journalist in the Grand Rapids area since 2000. A graduate of Central Michigan University, she has written for The Grand Rapids Press, Advance Newspapers and On-the-Town Magazine. She has been covering the many exciting facets of K-12 public education for School News Network since 2013. Read Erin's full bio or email Erin.

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