Thirteen-year-old Ernest Priester was so excited about his new custom-made prosthetic arm that he decided to test its limits by trying to catch a football. While that experiment didn’t go so well, he is now the newest member of the Greater Cleveland FIRST Robotics team, a group of students from several Cleveland Metropolitan School District (CMSD) high schools working together after school to build prosthetic arms and provide them free of cost to children who need them.
CMSD at international robotics competition
FIRST Robotics is an international competition, founded by inventor and tech guru Dean Kamen, in which high school students work in teams to build and program “industrial-size” robots (think Go-Karts with arms) that compete against other teams’ robots. The object of the game, which varies year to year, is announced at the start of a six-week period in which students must design and build their robots, so this sport requires quick thinking and innovation. Four CMSD high schools have robotics clubs that participate in the competition: MC2 STEM, Davis Aerospace and Maritime, East Technical, and John Marshall School of Information and Technology.
When the four Cleveland teams aren’t competing, they are working together on a long-term project creating prosthetics for students locally and abroad.
“FIRST is way more than just robots, it’s about learning new skills, working as a team, problem solving, practicing with [3D design software], making new friends, finding out what you can do, and having fun,” said Yariselle Andujar, a sophomore at Davis Aerospace and Maritime High School and a member of her school’s robotics club. Participating in FIRST, she said, has helped her become a better public speaker and encouraged her to be more independent and “to be a good person.”
The Greater Cleveland FIRST Robotics Initiative is a collaboration between CMSD and the Great Lakes Science Center, which houses the robotics lab where the students create their robots and build the prosthetic limbs. The space contains several 3D printers, computers and workspaces with the fasteners and tools needed for assembling the prototypes. Staff at the GLSC also work with the students as mentors, teaching them how to use the software and equipment.
Ernest, who was born without a right hand, was attending a CMSD tech fair last August with his mother when the students at the FIRST Robotics table asked if he wanted to try on the prototype prosthetic hand. The students not only helped him try it on and use it to pick up a water bottle–they also offered to make him a custom version, for free.
At a news conference, Ernest said that getting the prosthetic made life better. “I can pick up stuff with my right hand. I can touch stuff too,” he said.
“I want to be able to write with that arm,” Ernest said later.
The students have learned how to use 3D-design software to customize a prosthetic for the intended recipient, how to prepare a file for 3D printing, and how to assemble the pieces before sending out a finished product.
“There are two types of prosthetic devices that our team has learned to create,” Yariselle said. “The E-nable Phoenix hand for children with amputations below the wrist, and the E-nable UnLIMBited arm for children with amputations between the wrist and elbow.”
Ernest is receiving the UnLIMBited version.
The initiative also has partnered with non-profit IMAHelps, which organizes humanitarian and medical missions to Central and South America. The students on the team are working with representatives from IMAHelps to provide Samantha, a 12-year-old girl in Ecuador, with a prosthetic arm. The IMAHelps team has already sent Samantha the FIRST team’s prototype, and soon the students will speak with her to improve the design and create a final version.
Jeff Crider, an IMAHelps board member who has been the liaison between the CMSD students and Samantha, said the organization is grateful to have the opportunity to collaborate with the students and give teens the chance to change lives. “They are getting to know what it’s like to help somebody,” Crider said.
Participants in the FIRST robotics program are also eligible for a number of scholarships. Partnering Ohio schools include Case Western Reserve University and the Ohio State University.
Dagian Lee, a student at MC2 Stem High School who stepped up recently to help her team with graphics and video in addition to robotics, said she enjoys being on the team and finding opportunities to shine. She encourages others to participate, no matter where they’re coming from.
“My advice for anyone who wants to join FIRST robotics or robotics in general is, go ahead. It doesn’t matter where you’re from, what you have going on, your gender, it’s fine. Barriers shouldn’t prevent anybody from doing what they like. I really like STEM, so I say go for it.”