Learning Lessons: Prosthetic Hands Program

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Learning Lessons: Prosthetic Hands Program

Voice: March 2018

This story is part of a regular series, “Learning Lessons: Great ideas, Great schools,’’ that features educators who are doing great things or conducting great programs in Pennsylvania’s public schools. For other stories in the series go to www.psea.org/learninglessons.

Eighth-graders in Gavin Sikorski’s STEM class in Southmoreland Middle School are using what they learn there to change lives for other children around the world. 

The teacher in the Westmoreland County school connects with families online whose children are born without fingers or even an entire hand, and his class builds the child a custom prosthetic.

In the first year of the program, his students built hands for a kindergarten student in the district and children in Texas, England, and France.

Setting an example

Prior to having his students embark on these life-changing projects, Sikorski had incorporated three-dimensional printers as a supplemental instrument. Students would identify a problem, design a solution, and 3D-print and test it. But Sikorski wanted more.

“I wanted to make a difference in my students’ lives and some other child’s life somewhere in the world,” he said.

He spent time researching different projects and stumbled upon a video of someone using a 3D-printed prosthetic hand. Intrigued, he found files to serve as a basis and designed his own – prototyping it and testing it during his spare time. He planned all the lessons for a year surrounding the project so he would be ready to implement it without delay for his students.

Sikorski’s students saw the work he was doing, which he kept a secret until the first year of the prosthetic project. Once they learned what they would be doing, they were excited and eager to get started.

Learning from every angle

Students in Sikorski’s class use a variety of skills to create different aspects of the projects. From working on the design of the hand and assembling the 3D-printed pieces to writing a letter to the family and creating a videotape of the entire creative process, there are areas for everyone to contribute.

Sikorski connects with families on social media, seeking out those with children who have symbrachydactyly, a congenital abnormality that results in limb anomalies. Most families that Sikorski connects with have children with missing hands and are eager to improve their lives with prosthetics.

During the first semester of the program, the class created hands for children in Texas and England. The second semester provided an extra layer of difficulty, with a hand for a student from France.

“When the email arrived, I wasn’t expecting it to come in another language,” Sikorski said. With a little help from Google’s translation tool, he was able to connect with the family, who also requested a customized Mickey Mouse hand.

Designs can be customized to a student’s liking, and the emblems, such as a Mickey Mouse, can be attached with Velcro.

Students record all stages of the project and edit the footage to create a video to send to the family. In addition, they draft a letter to the family, thanking them for the opportunity to create the hand, and enhancing how to use the prosthetic they’re receiving. 

A local impact

One of Sikorski’s most memorable projects so far is one that made an impact in his own community.

A kindergarten student in Southmoreland School District had a need for a prosthetic, and the family reached out to Sikorski for help.

“Her situation was a little bit more complicated,” he said. “We couldn’t use our standard design because her arm actually stops part way up her forearm.”

Sikorski was up for the challenge, and the result was rewarding.

“I sent her a design of what we created, so she got to see it on paper, but not the actual physical arm itself. When we had it finished, I put it in a box, so she couldn’t see anything,” he said. “She opened up the box like it was Christmas. She took out the hand, and her face just brightened up. She immediately wanted to get it attached to her arm and start using it.”

Being able to make a lasting impact on his own community is important for Sikorski.

“The family was very grateful,” he said. “They wanted to make sure that we could continue to make these for her as she continues to progress throughout her life.”

Lessons beyond the classroom

Sikorski believes that creating these prosthetics for other children has helped his students be more empathetic.

“I actually have my students perform an exercise where they don’t get to use their second hand, and they get to realize really fast how much that impacts,” he said. “Those simple tasks we take for granted – opening a fridge and holding a glass – those people can’t do that. But by creating these hands for them, they can.”

In its first year, Sikorski’s prosthetics program made an equally large impact on the students performing the work.

“When making the prosthetic hand, we get to help this child in need,” Paige Ladowitz said. “It’s a very life-building experience. We get to design it, we get to build it, and we get to ship it to this little boy.”

Sikorski’s students realize the difference they’re making. He is teaching lessons that go far beyond his classroom walls.

“My favorite part of this class would be knowing we are helping others and not just ourselves, and we are doing good in the community,” Tenley Maple said.

Sikorski hopes to continue the prosthetics program and use the success to raise the level of his other areas of teaching.

“I plan to continue doing this for as long as I’m teaching here,” he said. “I’m going to continue to improve the rest of my course to match what this project has created.” 

Tip Sheet

Southmoreland EA member Gavin Sikorski provides the following advice for those looking to build a prosthetics program.

  • Be passionate about your teaching.  Find a way to incorporate your passions into your lessons. Sikorski knew he wanted to use his classroom to benefit others.
  • Do research. There are so many unmet needs. With a little curiosity online, Sikorski found a way to meet the needs of these children through his students’ projects.
  • Connect with social media.  Sikorski uses social media to connect with families in need of these prosthetics. It has allowed his students to make an impact on children around the world.