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The fifth-graders in Grace Finn’s Challenge Program at Field Stevenson Elementary School made a functioning prosthetic hand using a 3D printer for a former teacher who was born without a left hand.

Antonio Gasse, a student participating in the project, explained, “Mr. [Bob] Quirk had been a teacher for a lot us when we were younger, so we’ve known about him not having a hand for a long time. Our Challenge teacher, Ms. Finn, got a request from another teacher to do this project because she thought it would be an interesting idea.”

“This year,” said Marissa Garza, “our main focus in the Challenge Program is design process, so the request fit what we were doing.” She explained that the first step in the design process they were using is to empathize, observe and understand.

Liliana Wood explained that in order to complete step one — to empathize — they interviewed Mr. Quirk and asked him a range of questions. “We asked him if he had ever used a mechanical hand before, if he needed help tying his shoes, and what his hardest challenge is, but we also asked him what his favorite color was and if he liked lasagna.” 

 “Step two,” Garza added, “is to define what materials we needed to find and how to get them.”

“We did some research,” said Gasse, “and found that many hand designs already exist, but to make a prosthetic hand feel like it’s their hand, you have to modify it so that person’s specifications are met.” The students customized an artificial hand designed by Steve Wood, which is called “Flexy Hand 2.”

According to Jaiden Smith, Mr. Quirk shared that driving a nail in was difficult for him because he didn’t have a left hand to hold the nail while hammering. “So we decided to make a nail holder that he could attach to one of the fingers,” she explained. “On another finger we put like a measuring tape in centimeters — because he likes the metric system.”

Kenny Snyder added, “We learned that his favorite team is the Blackhawks, so we made the hand in the Blackhawk’s colors and put a Blackhawk symbol on the back of the hand.”

Naomi Allen said the hand has additional features like a secret compartment and a finger that can serve as a highlighter pen. And each finger on the prosthetic hand is able to bend. 

Finn explained that Wood’s design is considered a wrist-powered device. 

“When Mr. Quirk bends his wrist, the hand closes in order to grasp. The flexible joints allow the hand to release the grasp when he straightens his joint.”

Alina Huner said they learned a lot doing research for the project. “Gathering information for the hand, we learned that 2.1 million people live without limbs, that 31,000 prosthetics are sold each year and that the average cost per limb is $250.”

Carlos Rivera worked on another project to complement the prosthetic, which the students named Manibus Maximus, Latin for the “greatest hand.” 

“I never actually worked on the hand,” he said. “I was working on a tiny computer we could put in the palm of the hand. When you start the one I designed up, it shows a heart and then after a countdown it says ‘go Blackhawks.”

Nart Ramadani also contributed to the project but was absent for the interview

Bob Quirk, who is presently a second grade instructor at Betsy Ross Elementary School, was amazed, surprised and “impressed with the work they did on it. It’s incredible what they did in that short amount of time.

“Having gone my whole life without a hand, a prosthetic hand might take a lot of getting used to. But I jumped on board with the project because I thought about what the project could do for the kids.”

Finn said the project won “outstanding prototype” acclaim from the professional designers at the Team Problem Solving Design Challenge held at the Chicago History Museum on March 6.

“Challenge,” Finn explained, “is an enrichment program for students in grades 3-8. Students meet once a week to engage with their [grade level] peers in problem/project-based learning activities.”

At the start of the school year, all District 91 third- through eighth-grade students take the Fastbridge assessment. Students with a total math or total reading score above the 85th percentile are invited to be tested through a three-part assessment that identifies achievement and aptitude. Scores from assessments and observations are used to rank-order all students tested.

About going through life missing one hand, Bob Quirk said, “Even when I was a kid, my parents, brothers and sisters never babied me. I was a pretty good athlete. I played baseball, football, and basketball, and I played hockey till I was in my 40s.”

Married with three children, all in their 20s, he doesn’t feel sorry for himself. “I don’t picture myself as having a disability,” he said. “I just do things differently.”

He worked for Jewel Foods for 31 years as a grocery manager until he decided it was time for a change in his life and went back to school at National Louis University, where he earned a Master of Arts in Teaching in 2009. After graduation he was hired to teach at Betsy Ross and now serves as the second-grade building aide.

“The road,” he said, “changes in front of you as you go along.”

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