Menomonee Falls students build prosthetic hands during science class

Ameer El-Afandi tests his prosthetic device made from specific materials to grasp, lift and release an foam die  during an eighth grade Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) class project at North Middle School on April 18.

Ameer El-Afandi tests his prosthetic device made from specific materials to grasp, lift and release an foam die during an eighth grade Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) class project at North Middle School on April 18. Photo By C.T. Kruger

April 23, 2013

Menomonee Falls - Eighth-grade science students at North Middle School were handed a simple list of items, but assigned a complex task.

Items included straws, insulated wire, cardboard and tape. The goal: to make a prosthetic hand that can pick up a ball, a cube or rectangular piece of wood.

When longtime educator Julie Poetzel first announced the unique assignment to her class, the students' initial reaction was surprise. Student Lindsay Travia saw the list and her first thought was "this is impossible."

Her classmate Eric Schwalbach's reaction was shock as the lesson plan jumped from insects to building a functioning, bionic hand.

As students began to put the finishing touches on their hands last week, with their Friday deadline looming, shock had been replaced with pride.

"When we had to come up with our first design, your mind was blank first," student Allison Schultz said. "After you started playing with the stuff, we finally got the hang of it."

Her team enjoyed doing the hands-on assignment that was so different from traditional text book lessons. For Travia's team, they learned to work together, combining three different ideas into a successful product.

"I had a totally different imagination of what would actually happen," Travia's teammate Bethany Freeman said. "We all kind of had different ideas, but I think that's better sometimes because you have more range of imagination."

Building teamwork skills was one of many goals the project had, Poetzel said.

A changing classroom

It wasn't only the students who found themselves challenged, but the teachers. The prosthetic hands project was the first of its kind in North Middle School's eighth-grade science classes. The project was part of an integration of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) programming into the classroom.

STEM curriculum is not yet a requirement in schools, but it may soon be as the state is beginning to adopt mandatory curriculum standards. Math and English language curriculum currently have state standards known as the Common Core. Implementing engineering-based, problem-solving coursework is at the forefront of educational changes in science and technology curriculum.

Poetzel, who has been at North for 16 years, and fellow science teachers are ahead of the curve. They researched various STEM projects and decided to get creative in bringing that type of thinking into the classroom.

"I was deathly afraid to start the project because we weren't sure if it would work. I have to say right now, I'm feeling really good about it," Poetzel said as students with all range of abilities have found success in building the hands. "This is a shift in thinking, but this is what college and industries want."

Real-world skills

Even the teachers had to sit down and problem-solve, making their own prosthetic hands with minimal materials through trial and error.

"You have to be comfortable as a teacher to give time, space, resources and take away your control," and let the students solve the problem for themselves, Poetzel said.

Despite the challenges the project presented for teachers, the reward has been worth it. Not only does the project teach teamwork and problem-solving, it gives students a sense of budgeting their time and resources, a skill transferable to the real world.

"Just even taking the basic math of keeping a budget, and you have to fall under a budget, and you can't go over because then the company you're working for won't pay you," Poetzel said as an example.

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