At first blush, Mel Possehl’s classroom at Horizon Community Middle School looks like any number of technical learning spaces around the Cherry Creek School District and the country.
Canary-colored reels of electrical cord dangle above wood-topped student work stations. Discussion questions and scheduling reminders are scribbled onto white boards in crimson dry-erase marker. Bulky carpentry equipment lies dormant in the foreground.
But there’s more to what goes on in Possehl’s seventh and eighth grade elective, entitled “Engineering Our World,” than the seemingly banal surroundings suggest.
For the past several months, Possehl’s students have learned how to use software and on-site 3-D printers to conceptualize, design and produce prosthetic limbs for local disabled veterans. Specifically, students have learned how to use SolidWorks, a computer-aided design and engineering program, to produce multi-functional lower limbs that can be attached to longboards, snowboards and skis.
“The whole point was to create a prosthetic with multiple implements that can be taken off,” Possehl said. “For instance, with the design one student (Simon Frimpong) made, the bottom comes off. So you have a walking part, then you have a part that hooks onto a longboard or a snowboard, then you have a part that hooks onto skis, and then a part that can do multiple things. It’s a multiple-use prototype.”
The idea to design a prothesis stemmed from a group of seventh-grade students Possehl had in class last year — her first as a STEM teacher — who had parents with prostheses. They also wanted to honor a fellow Horizon student a few grades below them who uses a prosthetic limb. The idea of finding a local veteran to whom they could eventually donate their project was simply the logical next step, according to Possehl.
“We tied it in with Veterans Day because we have so many veterans in the area because of Buckley Air Force Base, which is just down the street,” she said. “We have a lot of staff members who are vets, and we have a lot of kids whose parents are vets, too.”
This week, the Horizon students met the future recipient of their project for the first time. Late Monday afternoon, the students interviewed Kyle Kelly, a Marine Corps veteran who lost his left leg, and learned about how they could design a prosthesis to best suit his needs. Kelly, who was connected to the Horizon program through VFW Post 1 in Denver, currently uses a prosthetic leg provided by the Department of Veterans Affairs that is too short and causes abrasions on the back of his leg because it wasn’t fitted properly. After hearing Kelly describe his situation, Possehl’s students decided to amend their design to include a layer of memory foam where the limb will attach to Kelly’s body in an attempt to maximize comfort.
“We’re going to use silicon for the top, which will be slightly bulkier than what Kyle has now, but what (the students) decided after he left was that they wanted to create something that’s really comfortable,” Possehl said. “We’re going to make him something that doesn’t make his leg bleed or cause him to limp, which is what he has now.”
On top of perfecting Kelly’s prosthesis this winter, Possehl’s students are also focused on perfecting their application for the Samsung Solve for Tomorrow competition, a nationwide STEM contest that offers hundreds of thousands of grant dollars to schools with students who devise projects that apply STEM skills to solve real-world dilemmas.
Last month, the Horizon students who have been working on the prosthetics program were chosen as the 2015-16 statewide contest winners, an honor which will net the school $20,000 worth of new technology. That now gives the school the chance to win an additional $40,000 if it is selected as one of the top 15 finalists, and another $120,000 if it is chosen as one of the five finalists later this spring. Possehl said that the money will be used to improve the 3-D printing equipment at Horizon, which is housed adjacent to her classroom behind a glass wall.
“We’re going to print our final prosthesis at Eaglecrest because they have a carbon fiber printer, but we’re hoping that with the grant money we can use that to get a carbon fiber printer here (at Horizon),” she said.
She said that the goal of having such state-of-the-art facilities is to be able spark an early, lasting interest in the STEM disciplines.
“The technology is mind boggling,” Possehl said. “I’m hoping that the kids grasp that and use it to fuel their fire for the future. They’re not all bound to be engineers, but they are all bound to do something based in building and designing. I want them to have a passion for it and not think it’s outside of their realm because they’re not from the right neighborhood.”
Nickie Bell, the principal at Horizon, said that programs and curricula like those Possehl has designed at Horizon allow students to consistently feel the daily goal of educators worldwide: make students relish coming to school every day.
“They’re learning through math and engineering, but doing it through passion, which creates the complete cycle of learning,” Bell said. “You’ve never seen as much pride, humility and joy for school as when you look into the eyes of a student (who is) designing and creating the solution for a human being. That’s the gift of education — to see kids learn from a passion. It’s so, so cool.”