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Seventh-grader talks about gift of confidence provided by prosthetic arm nine years ago

High school students created arm for young girl

Editor’s Note: In 2015, then 4-year-old Maeli Gottschalk received a prosthetic forearm created by a group of Forest Hills Northern High School students. SNN told the story and is now checking in on Maeli and a teacher and student who were involved in making the gift.

Forest Hills — The red and blue prosthetic arm sits on a desk between Northern Hills Middle School seventh-grader Maeli Gottschalk and her mother, Laura Gottschalk.

The arm, Maeli’s entryway into learning how to ride a bicycle, now mostly sits in a closet since she does not use it anymore, Laura Gottschalk said, adding that the family hangs on to the arm, because of what it symbolizes.

“It was the first time where someone helped her and helped us as a family to find a solution for her to do something she wanted, which in turn opened doors to other opportunities,” she said.

In 2015, Gotschalk, a math teacher at Northern Hills Middle School, found the design plans for building an arm on the site Enabling the Future. The nonprofit shares designs to those willing to volunteer to make them. 

She reached out to Northern High teacher Adam Zavislak about making Maeli the prosthetic arm. Zavisiak oversaw a robotics class, which had recently acquired a 3D printer, which was needed to build the arm.

“It was an opportunity to show the students a real-world application of having that technology and how it could help,” he said. “It encouraged the students to think outside of the box and do some actual problem solving.”

Northern High teacher Adam Zavislak stands near one of the school’s 3D printers

Strengths and Teamwork 

While more common now, 3D printers were a fairly new technology in 2015. Alex Koth, a Forest Hills Northern graduate who now lives in Chicago, was a senior at the time. Because he had experience with 3D printing, Koth was assigned the task of working with the printer while his classmates, Mitchell Dewey, Alex Dolce, Connor Matulaitis, and Matthew Holden focused on the physics, engineering and function of creating the arm.   

Forest Hills Northern graduate Alex Koth said he still remembers the lesson about teamwork from working on the prosthetic arm (courtesy)

“They had to do a lot of problem solving as they needed to fit the arm to Maeli along with figuring out how to make the fingers move,” said Laura Gottschalk, adding that the prosthetic was the first Maeli could manipulate using her upper arm. Another prosthetic she had was operated through shoulder movements and only had a clip for a hand that did not make learning how to ride a bike easy.

Koth, who went on to study architecture at the University of Michigan, said he learned the importance of working as a team and playing to an individual’s strengths, lessons he uses in his job at a project management consulting company. 

“I went from working as a team to building a prosthetic arm to now I’m working as a team to building a building,” he said.

The project also confirmed he was heading in the right direction for a career in architecture. He could see every step of the process in creating the arm from design to Maeli using it. 

“Now in my career, I can create a building, be a part of a team that makes a building and then I can see people experience that building and walk through it and see the end product,” he said. 

“In hindsight, I think it was great that Forest Hills gave high school students the tools, the opportunity and the teachers to help them achieve something like this.”

— Forest Hills graduate Alex Koth 

The Gift of more Opportunties

Maeli said the hand served its purpose, allowing her to grab the bike handle so she could ride a bike, but more importantly “what it really did was give me the confidence to do more things,” she said.

The prosthetic arm was created by a group of Forest Hills Northern students led by teacher Adam Zavisiak

Maeli has gone on to participate in an amputee softball league and she enjoys Irish step dancing. 

She also still enjoys bike riding although she does not need the arm anymore for balance, she said.

While the district, especially the students and Zavislak, received a lot of attention about the arm, Koth said the true reward was the classroom atmosphere that allowed the students to work on the project.

“In hindsight, I think it was great that Forest Hills gave high school students the tools, the opportunity and the teachers to help them achieve something like this,” Koth said. “We were in a pretty fortunate spot to have a 3D printer and then to also have a curriculum that let us kind of make whatever we wanted to make.”

In celebration of our 10th Anniversary, your School News Network team will bring you a wide variety of stories that tie to the decade – like the one here. We’ll re-publish each school district’s first stories and update engaging profiles of students and educators. Additional stories will highlight a decade of change in schools and public education. And we welcome your ideas! Just email us at SNN@kentisd.org

Read more 10th Anniversary stories: 
Looking back: Bigs and Littles find rewarding relationships
A veteran superintendent looks back on 10 eventful years

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Joanne Bailey-Boorsma
Joanne Bailey-Boorsma
Joanne Bailey-Boorsma is a reporter covering Kent ISD, Godwin Heights, Kelloggsville, Forest Hills and Comstock Park. The salutatorian for the Hartland Public Schools class of 1985, she changed her colors from blue and maize to green and white by attending Michigan State University, where she majored in journalism. Joanne moved to the Grand Rapids area in 1989, where she started her journalism career at the Advance Newspapers. She later became the editor for On-the-Town magazine, a local arts and entertainment publication. Her eldest daughter is a nurse, working in Holland, and her youngest attends Oakland University. Both are graduates from Byron Center High School. She is a volunteer for the Van Singel Fine Arts Advisory Board and the Kent District Library. In her free time, Joanne enjoys spending time with her family, checking out local theater and keeping up with all the exchange students they have hosted through the years. Read Joanne's full bio


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