Four-year-old Sven Johnson has two things in abundance — giggles and energy. If you see him whiz by on his bike, chances are he’ll be going too fast for you to notice that his left arm stops at the elbow.
A few months ago, riding his bike was much more difficult until two students at Blue Valley’s Center for Advanced Professional Studies stepped in to help. In the fall, CAPS students made an artificial arm and hand combination for Sven, but he needed something else for riding the bike.
“We didn’t have enough control over the bike,” said Sven’s mom, Susan Johnson.
Seventeen-year-old Cody Kelemen of Olathe and 18-year-old Austin Crawford of Overland Park spent about a week designing an attachment that fits snugly onto the end of Sven’s arm and clamps firmly onto the bike’s handlebars.
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“We got the original idea from Google Images, but we put our own CAPS spin on it,” Kelemen said.
The CAPS students’ creation is just one of several projects happening all over Johnson County where students from elementary to high school ages have noticed a problem someone with special needs is having and stepped up to fill the gap.
“We see a lot of students engaged in making things … (and that’s) reflective of the increase in engineering design in science classes. You see students working on real-life problems,” said David Evans, executive director of the National Science Teachers Association.
The projects here range from a specially designed spoon to some wheels for kids with limited mobility to Sven’s very special left arm.
When it came to designing an attachment for Sven’s bike, safety was an important consideration.
The end touching Sven’s arm has a flexible urethane cup. Susan Johnson had been rigging up a homemade version with a silicone cup threaded with Velcro on the end, but she’d have to replace the cup every time, because it would tear. With the new attachment, that’s not a problem anymore.
“When he falls, (the cup) just kind of pops off,” so Sven will be able to separate himself from the bike if necessary, Kelemen said.
They looked to GoPro clamps for inspiration on fastening the attachment to the handlebars.
“We wanted to make it kid-friendly, without much metal — nothing too sharp,” Crawford said.
Both the arm and bike attachment are orange plastic, printed from a 3-D printer. Keith Manbeck, engineering and manufacturing teacher at Blue Valley CAPS, said it took about 10 hours of printing to produce the attachment.
“The boys actually designed something more than I anticipated,” Manbeck said.
Crawford and Kelemen had actually never met Sven when they designed the attachment and only got to know him in the testing phase for the attachment.
“Originally, I wasn’t super excited about this project, because I didn’t know what I was doing, and then when he came by, it was really exciting to see the smile on his face and how he really liked it,” Kelemen said. “He wasn’t super excited either the first time he saw it, and then we made a couple of changes, and he really enjoyed it.”
Part of the challenge of making the design in the first place is that Sven is small, and most designs are intended for a bigger person.
With a few kinks worked out, Sven was hooked on the bike attachment.
“Everyone was amazed at how much better he was with the tool, and not even (with) any practice, just suddenly. I just thought we would fix the problem with the cup tearing,” Johnson said.
“He wants to ride,” she said. “Before, he’d get frustrated, and he wouldn’t ride for more than five minutes, if that, and you’d have to be luring him along. Now, he’ll go, and we’ll have to run. We’ll have to plan on taking a car to get him home, because he won’t want to come back.”
Johnson said she likes not only having the attachment for Sven but that Sven experiences this side of schoolwork.
“I love that he gets to see that this is school — learning how to problem-solve, getting to see older students helping younger students,” Johnson said.
Another group of CAPS students, 18-year-olds Ryan Foley of Stilwell, Matt Laverentz of Leawood and Lucas Hill and Matt Johnson of Overland Park, worked with Sven on the original arm/hand combination after Sven’s preschool teacher referred the family to CAPS last year.
Manbeck said that CAPS would continue to work with Sven as he gets older. This fall, they plan to adapt the design of the arm/hand better for how he uses it.
“For these kids to be able to design something where they know the person — there’s a different purpose. It’s a completely different project than just trying to make something,” Manbeck said.
Johnson said she hopes Sven might one day design his own arm.
Having the 3-D printed arm also allows Sven and his family to dip a toe into the large world of prosthetics without making a huge financial investment.
“It lets us explore it and explain it to Sven without being so far into it. A real prosthetic, it’s a commitment, and you don’t know how it’s going to go over, and the process (to get one) is lengthy,” Johnson said. “This is much more immediate, and you can see the result, and you don’t have to wait.”
When Kelemen and Crawford went online to research possible features for the bike attachment, they saw commercial versions selling for around $1,000. CAPS provided their design to the Johnson family at no charge.
“For me, it was probably one of the coolest things I’ve done in my life,” Crawford said. “It seems like he has a lot of confidence.”
Projects like Sven’s arm and bike attachment not only help people like Sven, but they’re also helping the students who design them. What’s happening at CAPS isn’t an isolated project — it’s indicative of a larger trend in science education.
Evans said one recent turning point was a 2011 report from the National Science Foundation on elementary and secondary science education that helped reshape many state science standards. It encouraged more training for educators in STEM topics, more access to STEM opportunities and additional instructional time.
Wide community support is key is encouraging innovative projects. Evans pointed to the increase in resources such as the Johnson County Library’s MakerSpace and the increase in local and national recognition of students’ scientific achievements.
“I think we’ve seen a dramatic increase in the availability of resources for these programs and the number of kids participating in them,” Evans said. “I think this connection between the MakerSpaces and technology and the change in instruction go hand in hand. You see more students engaged.”
It’s something that’s evident on a national scale and particularly in the Kansas City metro area.
“What students are finding is when they take specialty STEM coursework, then all of the sudden they find the relevance of math and science,” said Martha McCabe, executive director of the KC STEM Alliance. “Especially if the educators are trained up, when you give the students technology in their hands, you give them the freedom to create.”
McCabe said that Shawnee Mission will be using the KC STEM Alliance’s Project Lead the Way curriculum next year in all of its elementary schools. School districts throughout the metro area, including Blue Valley’s CAPS program, use curricula designed by the alliance.
It was a new 3-D printer that inspired a group of fifth-grade girls at Trailwood Elementary School in the Shawnee Mission School District to make something to help a friend.
The school’s principal, Greg Lawrence, had suggested using the equipment to fifth-grade teacher Crystal Williamson. The students in Williamson’s class were all divided in groups to work on different challenge projects, and one group of five girls didn’t have a project idea at first.
“The original idea stemmed from, ‘We have this (3-D printer) — what can we do with it?’ ” Williamson said. “They took it from there. … One of the girls in that group is pretty good friends with this other student and has lunch with her sometimes.”
The girls — Alida Erwin, 11, Sofia Patino, 11, Sofia Giuliani, 10, Veronica Fast, 11, and Cassie Dimick, 10, all of Overland Park — noticed that it was hard for a friend, Overland Park resident and Trailwood classmate Audri Gray, 12, to eat with traditional utensils, because her arm tends to shake.
Audri has a form of epilepsy with developmental delays and other challenges, and eating with regular utensils is too difficult. She has a special set of utensils right now, but they’re very expensive to buy, and her family doesn’t have multiple sets.
“Audri loves that the girls are making something for her,” said Staci Gray, Audri’s mom. “She loves the kids at Trailwood so much. They are so amazingly kind and respectful and protective. … This is something that doesn’t surprise me. They’re constantly doing things like this for her.”
When Audri’s arm shakes before she can get the food to her mouth, the food will often fall back down to the plate, making it take a lot longer for her to get through lunch.
“She would leave (from lunch) hungry (or have to stay late), and we didn’t want that to happen anymore,” Veronica said. “Our motivation was just thinking about how hard it was for Audri and getting to make a change for her and not have to struggle to move the spoon.”
That bond of empathy is what really put the fire behind the project for these girls.
“If someone could just imagine it shaking and your food would just fall off, over and over again. … We talked about how we would never want to have our hands shake,” Alida said.
They decided to make new utensils, created with the 3-D printer, their project for the year.
“She’s a part of our class,” Williamson said. “She’s a part of our community. For them, this is a real problem. It’s good for us to pose hypothetical problems for children to think about, but this is an actual problem that needed a solution.”
The team started by researching what was available online, in terms of utensils that were easier to handle, and they asked Audri’s occupational therapist at school which models she was currently using.
They also took aesthetics into account.
“We got crayons from our art boxes, and we asked her which color she wanted,” Veronica said.
Audri preferred red, and the finished spoon prototype was red with an orange handle. The girls hope to add an extra grip to the handle using colorful Rainbow Loom rubber bands.
The design they came up with for the spoon features a thick rectangular handle and a right angle just before the business end of the spoon. The right angle was especially important to their design, because it meant that Audri wouldn’t have to turn the spoon to use it.
“It’s like the curve of death when all the food spills out,” Veronica said.
The next challenge was translating that physical design into a form that would allow the 3-D printer to reproduce it. The first app they tried, 123D Catch, required 360-degree pictures of their design, but there were problems with that.
“We took pictures all the way around it, and we were going to try and print it out, but it just ended up looking like a blob every single time,” Veronica said.
That left the girls stuck for a while.
“We had lots of fails. … At one point, we just thought, ‘OK, this is not going to work,’ ” said Sofia Patino.
Williamson arranged for them to have a Skype chat with sixth-graders at Briarwood Elementary School who had worked on 3-D printer projects previously. That’s where they got the idea to use the 123D Design app.
“Finding something that actually works so we can create the spoon on an app that would process to a 3-D printer — that was hard,” Alida said.
The app allows users to take different shapes, such as cylinders, cones and cubes, and modify their dimensions to come up with a complete design.
“You can put shapes together, and you can shrink it,” said Sofia Patino.
It took several prototypes to get the design right. They made one of them in the MakerSpace at the Johnson County Library.
On one of the models, “we realized it was too deep, and so if she chewed too hard, the plastic would break off,” Alida said. “No one wants to eat plastic. That’s gross.”
Also a challenge was the size of Trailwood’s 3-D printer. The printing area was only 10 centimeters — about four inches. That meant that they couldn’t print their spoon all in one piece — they’d have to design it in three interlocking parts.
It took a few tries to get all the parts to fit correctly as well, and to print all the parts of the spoon takes about two hours.
Once they printed it, they sanded off the rough edges and planned to glue the pieces together. In the future, they hope to make a metal version of the spoon. The girls worked about an hour a week on the project in class from October to May.
“It’s fun to see their different strengths come out, and they all use those strengths together,” Williamson said. “They’ve actually become leaders with this new technology. It actually has opened opportunities for them to work with other kids in the building on this app.”
With innovation coming from students as young as 10 years old, Staci Gray is excited to see what Audri’s classmates and others will do in the future.
“Finding a spoon to feed her is just surreal. If fifth-graders could create a spoon, imagine what else we could do,” Gray said.
Three-dimensional printing is definitely one of the more popular outlets for the designs and ideas coming out of newer science curricula — but it’s not the only game in town.
Five-year-old Ethan Jones can’t walk or use one of his arms, but put him in a Go Baby Go car and he’s got a need for speed. The Olathe resident is just one of dozens in the area who have benefited from a program that takes ride-on toy cars and turns them into alternate transportation for kids ages 1 to 7.
“He gets so excited whenever it comes time for his car. He sees it, and he just squeals. He wants to do it, and even with the one arm he has (use of), it’s hard, but it gives him a reason to want to try,” said Dori Jones, Ethan’s mom. “He absolutely loves it, and they are so great with trying to adapt the car for whatever the child’s special need is.”
The program originated at the University of Delaware, but there’s a local chapter headquartered at Rockhurst University. Students modify the toy cars, bought at local stores, to be more appropriate for kids with mobility problems to use as transportation.
The group also holds workshops to teach others how to do the same thing. That’s where a robotics team from the Barstow School joined the mix. The president of the school’s volunteer club was also involved with the robotics club and brought the idea of building the cars to the Barstow robotics club.
Members of Barstow’s robotics team participated in a Rockhurst workshop, and then the team held its own building day, where team members modified seven more cars, including Ethan’s. Most of the cars came with a “Frozen” motif, but Ethan’s is customized with additional Spider-Man decals.
More important than the decoration is what’s under the hood. The students wired a large control button inside the front of the cars in place of the regular pedal accelerator, which is difficult for kids with limited mobility to use.
“On top of that, we also created a new structural exoskeleton out of PVC, and with that, we literally just bolted it onto the car,” said 17-year-old Zuhair Hawa of Leawood.
They also added pieces of pool floatation noodles to function as arm rests and back supports and moved the on/off switch to the outside of the car to make it easier for parents to turn it off if they need to do so. With safety in mind, they also added a seatbelt.
“We have to start with taking (it) apart and looking at the wiring and seeing where we adjust it so we can rewire it to work with the buttons before we can start with more mechanical things like the back rest,” said 16-year-old Paco Sheeran of Leawood.
About 45 Barstow students participated in the building day held at the school last fall. Each car took two or three hours for a team of about six robotics students to modify. Although they’re all familiar with robotics, there was still a learning curve in modifying these cars.
“What we had to learn was how the wires worked in order to rewire the power from the accelerator,” said 16-year-old Ethan Gilworth of Kansas City. “A lot of the changes other than the wiring were pretty simple.”
Rockhurst provided the team with a manual, but Zuhair said their team made some modifications to the instructions to streamline the rewiring process.
The reward for the Barstow students came when they presented the cars to the families.
“It was really funny, because you could tell how each of the kids was going to be driving the car,” Gilworth said. Ethan Jones “got strapped in, everybody backed away, and he just like slammed it. He was like, ‘I want to go!’ ”
Enthusiasm for the project has only grown since the building day.
“This was the first time we really worked with kids and their families really closely, so I think it definitely opened up more possibilities to do projects like it in the future and start keeping eyes on it maybe not just for our generation of high schoolers but for the next generation of high schoolers,” said 14-year-old Alexey Ayzin of Kansas City.
One of the reasons the robotics team jumped at the chance to try modifying the cars is because it was an off-season opportunity to put the skills they’ve learned in robotics competitions to good use. The robotics season takes place during January and February, so working on these cars was like a warmup for them.
For Ethan, it’s a tool to open up a whole new world.
“He can use it with (his sister) playing in the summer,” Jones said. “She has no physical handicaps, so she can run and play, and so this is one way for him to keep up with her. If, at some point, he should have to go to an electric wheelchair, it teaches them at a young age to compensate for moving around corners” and other navigational challenges.
Using the cars, kids can catch up to their peers in a literal sense but also in terms of development.
“The social and cognitive impact is also really huge. Their memory improves; their social interactions improve. While it’s really cute, and it’s really fun, it’s also really good science,” said Kendra Gagnon, an associate professor in the physical therapy education department and faculty director of Go Baby Go at Rockhurst University.
Because it still looks like a toy, it can also take away some of the social stigma associated with looking different while using assistive devices among peers, Gagnon said.
It costs about $300 to make a Go Baby Go car. Half of that goes to buying the ride-on car from a retail store. The other half is for parts. However, for the families, it’s free. The Kansas City branch of Variety, The Children’s Charity has pledged $10,000 a year toward expenses to buy and modify the cars locally.
“There are still times kids need walkers and wheelchairs. This is not a piece of medical equipment,” Gagnon said. “We’re just taking a toy and basically hacking it so all kids can use it.”
Toys or not, they seem to have left plenty of smiles in their wake.
Beth Lipoff: firstname.lastname@example.org