Science can build better robots and humans, according to JonDarr Bradshaw, community engagement coordinator at the Great Lakes Science Center (GLSC).
He says GLSC’s two-year-old Robotics Initiative is meant for “building people who can think outside the box and solve bigger problems.”
Like making prosthetics for children lacking limbs.
Over the past year, robotics teams from four Cleveland Metropolitan School District (CMSD) high schools created prosthetic arms and hands at GLSC for a few youngsters from poor families here in Cleveland and in Ecuador.
Two of the robotics students then spent a week in Quito, Ecuador this summer, fitting children and helping medical volunteers give free treatment to nearly 5,000 people with all kinds of conditions.
“It was so emotional to see the [Ecuadorian] children do things they haven’t been able to,” recalls Gabe Leonard, who graduated last spring from Davis Aerospace and Maritime High School.
“With proper training, they can brush their teeth, walk their dogs, play ball, be kids again,” adds Bradshaw of the children who received prosthetics.
Yariselle Andujar, left, and Daniela Moreno look at some of the early prosthetics they and fellow robotics students made at Great Lakes Science Center for use by children at home and abroadA 12-year-old named Samantha lost one arm and damaged the other in a bus crash. Once fitted with new arms, she drew hearts in the air, wrote down her name over and over, and said, “I’ll be able to have my dreams again.”
The Great Lakes program began with about 100 members of robotics teams from Davis, East Tech, John Marshall, and MC2STEM High Schools. During the spring 2021 semester, Bradshaw told the students about robotics teams in other regions who’d gone on to make motorized wheelchairs, provide solar power for refugees’ tents, or help people in other ways.
He challenged his students to launch another valuable project. They decided to use GLSC’s 3D printers to make prosthetics that wearers could operate with functional muscles in their backs, shoulders, or partial arms.
Davis’s Yariselle Andujar helped display some of the early prosthetics at a district science fair. A student missing an arm tried one on. He started picking up toys and a water bottle.
At first, the student assumed that he couldn’t afford to keep the prosthetic, which usually costs thousands of dollars.
Andujar told him, “We’re not charging for these prosthetics. Would you like one?” The young student’s eyes teared up.
Soon the student came to Great Lakes for measurements and a fitting. Back home with his new arm, the excited boy tried doing flips. The prosthetic broke. So, the students made him another.
Bradshaw made contact with IMAHelps, a California-based nonprofit group of medical volunteers treating people for free in needy countries around the world.
The first morning, the IMAHelps volunteers found a long line of people lined up outside the group’s field tentThe group’s founder, Ines Allen, is from Ecuador, as is Davis robotics student Daniela Moreno. Bradshaw told the students about Ecuador’s Samantha. The students decided to make prosthetics for her. IMAHelps delivered and fitted them last fall.
“I really liked that I helped a member of my homeland,” says Moreno.
This spring, the Davis robotics team finished second in a statewide robotics contest. This summer, Leonard and Andujar joined an IMAHelps mission in Quito with Bradshaw and Tim Hatfield, program manager for Argonaut, a Cleveland nonprofit that supports Davis High School.
The first morning, the more than 80 volunteers in Quito found a long line of people lined up outside the group’s field tent.
Some of the people waiting in line had traveled up to six hours to be seen. Some had spent the night in line. Several hadn’t gotten medical help in years, if ever.
The volunteers treated 700 people a day over the course of the week and had to turn many away. Patients got everything from pills to surgeries on the spot. The bilingual Andujar helped to translate and take patient information.
The Clevelanders gave new prosthetics made at GLSC to Samantha, who’d outgrown her old ones. They gave prosthetics to other children as well.
A six-year-old skipped away, holding her daddy’s hand, after receiving her new prosthetic.
Andujar and Leonard visited the Ecuador Ministry of Health, while also making a little time for hiking, touring, and salsa dancing.
Jeff Crider, IMAHelps vice president and communications director, says that this summer’s mission was the group’s first with young people who are not related to their adult volunteers.
“We were just endlessly amazed at how well they fit in with our team, how committed they were to helping people,” Crider says. “These kids changed lives. The people of Cleveland should be really proud.”
The GLSC students say they plan to keep making replacement prosthetics for recipients whose old ones have worn out and will continue to outfit new recipients too.
The GLSC robotics group recently expanded, adding a team from Garrett Morgan High School and an all-girls team from various local schools.
Next summer, GLSC plans to send students to an IMAHelps mission in the Dominican Republic, while IMAHelps’ Crider, inspired by Cleveland’s contributions, hopes to add students from other cities on future missions.
Grant Segall is a national-prizewinning journalist who spent 44 years at daily papers, mostly The Plain Dealer. He has freelanced for The Washington Post, Oxford University Press, Time, The Daily Beast, and many other outlets.