Prosthetics Make a Difference for People with Limb Differences
Growing up in the 1970s, I was in awe of Steve Austin, the Six Million Dollar Man. This fictional character was an astronaut whose capsule crashed to Earth. He was rescued and rebuilt thanks to bionic implants that made him “better, faster, stronger.” Just a few years later I became friends with a new classmate who had a prosthetic leg. But hers was merely a functional replacement limb. It didn’t endow her with any superpowers. In fact, it so cumbersome that she often left it behind in the locker room during PE class.
Today’s prostheses are lighter, stronger and more useful than in the past. There is even an active debate about whether certain types of artificial limbs, like running blades, endow athletes with preternatural abilities. New kinds of plastics and carbon-fiber blends, not to mention shrinking electronics components, paired with an increased understanding of neural circuitry have already led to improved functionality.
In fact, Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the independent research branch of the Department of Defense (better known as DARPA), has developed a limb worthy of the Six Million Dollar Man. It might have cost at least that much to research and develop. The device costs around $100,000. It requires surgery and training to use, and is not yet widely available. But, wow, take a look at it in action. The arm moves via mind control, or, more accurately, the brain sends out electrical impulses to nerves that have been surgically redirected to optimize the connections with the device’s sensors. Read more about how it works here.
A STEM Career That Makes A Difference
A prosthetist fits and fabricates artificial limbs. It’s a rewarding career both in terms of average pay (close to six figures) and its capacity to have a direct positive impact on a person’s life. It’s challenging, too. The role demands a detailed understanding of human anatomy, as well as mastery of design principles and engineering concepts, not to mention digital fabrication skills.
As you know, people come in a wide variety of shapes and sizes. So each person presents their own challenges to a prosthetist. And if working with a range of human bodies sounds tough, imagine what it’s like to design and fit prosthetic limbs for non-human animals!
Do Try This At Home
While you’re no substitute for a qualified prosthetist, you might be able to help someone with a limb difference from the comfort of your science lab, personal workshop, or library makerspace.
People from all over the world download files and use their 3D printers to create free 3D printed hands and arms for those in need of an upper limb assistive device.
The Open Hand Project is to make robotic prosthetic hands more accessible to amputees.
Get A Grip... On Science
The 2018 Discovery Education 3M Young Scientist Challenge is now open for submission. If you know a curious creative kid in grades 5 - 8 encourage them to enter and compete for the title of America's Top Young Scientist!