By: Eric Stroud
The Hands of Hope Foundation isn’t the only place using 3D printing to make prosthetic limbs. Given the relative inexpensiveness of the material used to create the prosthetics, 3D printing offers a cheaper alternative to most medical devices. And with an ever-updating catalogue of software to create with, it is easier than ever to learn to create newer and better designs that can be tailored for each user. That’s also why schools around the US are adding 3D printers to their equipment labs, and high school students are learning to change the world with this new tech. So when we heard that a high school out in Austin was helping a little girl learn to play the cello with a specially designed prosthesis, we couldn’t resist telling you about it.
Kayla Arqueta is a student in Austin Middle School whose family has always been involved in music. With siblings in both the brass band and choir, she decided that she wanted to do something different, and asked her instructor in the spring of 2019 before coming to Austin Middle if she could play the cello in their school orchestra. Kayla’s instructor, Carly Addison, wanted desperately to say yes, but had some reservations. Kayla was born with a left arm that ends at the elbow, meaning she has no left hand. This, of course, makes it quite difficult to hold the bow for a cello. Miss Addison didn’t know how she was going to help, but she knew she “couldn’t say no” to Kayla.
Carly went home that night with the puzzle of how she could give Kayla the opportunity she wanted. Naturally, she took to Google for some answers. In her research, she discovered the work of one Dr. Jennifer Mankoff, an associate of the Human Computer Interaction Institute at Carnegie Mellon University. Dr. Mankoff, who has worked with Google, IBM, and Microsoft had published multiple works on prosthetics including some designs that interested Carly. Specifically, she had found plans that could be reproduced on a 3D printer. After confirming with Dr. Mankoff that the plans could be used for her project, she set to work on the next phase of the project.
Through a mutual friend, Carly discovered that the high-schools in the district had recently been given several 3D printers through a grant. Her friend pointed Carly in the direction of another teacher at nearby Nimitz High School. Dwight Davison is an engineering teacher at the school with a team of students who couldn’t wait to help undertake the project. Once they heard what they would be doing, they set straight to work using the plans that Dr. Mankoff had designed. With a few modifications, some input from Kayla, and a little elbow grease, the students were able to create a unique and colorful prosthetic just for her. Ultimately, the project was a success and Kayla began playing in her school’s orchestra in the fall of 2019. Mrs. Addison, for her part, also learned to play the cello backwards to help Kayla learn.
Kayla’s story has gained attention by news outlets all over the states. In a video which you can see here, Kayla explains that this new arm has helped her to “feel normal” and “special”. “I would like other students to know that life is challenging but everyone is gonna love you for who you are”, Kayla remarks. Seeing her play the cello for the first time, Mrs. Addison recalls that “it made this big beautiful cello sound and I knew we had done it“. Even the teacher who helped the students produce the arm had to admit that it was a sight to behold, “They are our future”, Davison says, “and look at it. It’s amazing”. As 3D printing continues to improve, and limb difference awareness continues to rise, there will be many more inspiring stories like Kayla’s, and we are so glad to be part of the journey.