Allegheny Intermediate Unit: Printing a 3-D Hand Builds Student Confidence

Somewhere in the United States, a child is proudly wearing a prosthetic hand made in the school colors of Allegheny Intermediate Unit’s Community School West, and 3-D printed through a unique collaboration of talented student and motivated teachers.

At Community School West, one of the Allegheny Intermediate Unit’s three alternative education schools, teachers John Rieg and Greg Marshall built a 3-D engineering class from scratch in fall 2015. Initially, students made useful items like hall passes. Then, that December, senior Justin Sullivan arrived, and the program “went to another level,” says Principal Jay Moser.

Sullivan always liked art, but 3-D printing was new to him. “I said I’d like to take the 3-D printing class, so it was on to bigger and better,” he says.

The instructions for making a human hand came from a North Carolina company that matches prosthetic hands with recipients. Justin spotted a child’s model called the Phoenix – the same mythical creature of renewal that’s the school’s mascot -- and knew it was the one to make.

3-D printing requires precise calculations to the millimeter. Sullivan mastered the software needed for the process, devising such intricacies as lining up tiny holes in the knuckles, for filaments to pass through and allow the fingers to grasp items.

“The first hand that came out was the coolest thing I ever saw,” says Moser. “The knuckles have to move independently and in coordination with each other, like ours do.”

After two prototypes, the final hand was done, in Community School West’s school colors of black and purple. Sullivan’s accomplishment made him a bit of a rock star among his classmates, says Moser.
“It was about making him believe in himself and his abilities,” he says. “Once he saw what he was able to do, there really was no stopping him. He got the message that we were doing this to help somebody else, somebody he’s never going to meet. He’s just paying it forward.”

While Sullivan studies sports medicine at Community College of Allegheny County, he also hopes to help teach future 3-D printing classes at his old school. He doesn’t know who gets the hand he printed, but he realized that he’s making a big difference in someone’s life.

“Wow,” he thought one day. “I made something that helped a little kid pick up a toy again.”

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