For the University of Oregon’s Biomechanics Investigation Outreach club, making a real difference in the world starts with wires, math and a 3D printer. Since 2017, the BIO club has been working with people through science to enhance lives and create change. Their latest project is helping 14-year-old Joseph Horton do what he loves: playing the drums.
Joseph was born with Moebius syndrome, a neurological condition that typically manifests itself in facial paralysis and affects speech; however, it can also lead to limb loss. Joseph was born with only the top half of his arms.
The BIO club built Joseph a prototype prosthetic right arm with a 3D printer last summer, though they are continuing to work with him to perfect the design.
Lauren Horton, Joseph’s mother, has a total of 11 children, seven of whom have various special needs. She said it is important that people view them as human beings, each with individual personalities and hobbies.
“We always feel very blessed to see people take a look at our children and see them as people,” Horton said. “It's important to look at what they can do, and not at what they can't do.”
The prototype arm that the BIO club had built for Joseph didn’t work in terms of functionality for Joseph’s situation, however, Horton said the process benefited everyone involved. The prototype was the first arm that Joseph ever got to experience.
The design will be continued until the BIO club feels that they’ve really benefited Joseph. When UO’s BIO club offered to build Joseph prosthetic arms, Horton said that she felt that they did it with great intentions.
“They didn't see Joe as a young man who couldn't do, they saw him as a kid who could,” she said. “They wanted to make his list of ‘can-do’ bigger. As a mom, that's something that means a lot.”
Joseph was adopted from an orphanage and has always been a problem solver, Horton said.
“When you're in that kind of situation, you don't really get the kind of pampering or coddling and help that you would get from a family. He's had to figure out how to make life work without hands,” she said. “It was a great process, and I'm very impressed with the team, even if it didn’t turn out too great. We all learned something. Starting on this journey with the UO team brought us a little farther.”
Taking on a New Challenge
“With our club specifically, we try to apply biomechanics with the human systems,” said BIO team leader John Francis. “The most important goal of our club is to apply what we learn during weekly meetings to benefit others, whether that be through community service or projects like these. That's what we wanted to do. We're all STEM majors.”
Francis defines biomechanics as an intersection of STEM fields, including biology, chemistry and physics. Their goal of serving the community was first realized when they met Joseph. They found Joseph through a local nonprofit in Lane County called Power on With Limb Loss, led by Paula Free.
“We met with Paula, and we said, 'This is what we want to do. Do you know anyone we can help out?' and she brought Joseph in,” Francis said. “He has no arms from his forearm down, and we thought that it would be great if we could build him a prototype prosthetic.”
After the tedious process of determining whether the plan was even feasible, the team took the initiative to meet with several professionals to decide what course of action would be best. Francis said that because everyone’s body and dimensions are different, it was important that they carefully evaluated what would work best for Joseph specifically.
“We needed to build it so that it would fit him, in his current size. That was one of the challenges that we had,” Francis said. “We met with Joseph multiple times, brought him to campus for meetings, and then asked if it was what he wanted once we found a prototype. He said, 'Oh yeah, sure, let's give it a shot!'”
The BIO Team did all of their 3D printing of the arm in the UO School of Architecture and Design because it was the only printer that could handle the scale of the project, according to Francis. Rather than normal printing, where the ink is relayed onto paper, 3D printing relays layers upon layers of plastic.
The process results in a three-dimensional object with a variety of purposes, Francis said. The first prototype is not one that the team is entirely happy with, as the arm didn’t fit exactly the way Joseph’s body needed it to, and they plan to continue making adjustments to the arm as a side project.
As of now, the BIO Team continues to do projects dedicated to the topic of disability awareness, including a 3D printed wheel for dogs with mobility issues and a voice-activated RC car for those who can’t use their arms or hands.
They plan on purchasing a 3D printer so they’re able to do more from their location in the Center for Student Involvement at the EMU. The BIO club is now ASUO recognized and is gaining acknowledgment and additional funding from the community. Francis said they expect to receive $500 of funding from ASUO, which is the maximum amount for first-year clubs for the year.
Helping out Joseph was the first project that the club had done in support of disability awareness, and it continues to make a long-lasting impression. Francis said the project was a reminder of what students can do to give back.
“It was super humbling visiting Joseph. Just knowing that we can make a difference in someone's life given our interests and passions is satisfying,” Francis said. “We were going into this project knowing that this is what we're passionate about. It was really cool knowing that we could execute a project like this as 21-22 year olds and make a difference in Joe's life.”
Making Community Connections
Paula Free, founder of the nonprofit Power on with Limb Loss, had the privilege of connecting Joseph with the BIO Team. She is also an amputee and works to empower others that are in situations similar to hers, whether it be limb loss or mobility issues. POWLL has at least one fundraiser per year to raise funds for children with disabilities in Lane County. Joseph received the second year’s funding.
“We just thought, ‘Well, what do you want, Joe? What do you want to do?’” Free said. “Meeting this amazing little guy that just can do anything, it came to mind that a 3D printed arm would be fantastic as a project to work on.”
After deciding that a prosthetic arm would be the best option for Joseph’s project, Free got to work contacting organizations that would be capable of making the idea come to life. After getting a prosthetic back from Portland, Free noticed that it was not designed well for Joseph’s body.
“We did get a 3D arm from the Portland guys, but the hand was huge and the arm didn't fit right. Then the BIO students took on the budget to do this,” she said. “They made it so that it would fit Joe's body size, and they did an absolutely amazing job.”
The prototype had some issues, according to Free, but more than anything, the recognition from it catapulted the entire project to another level. People began to pay attention to Joseph and his goal and stepped up to donate.
“The coolest thing about this whole ordeal is that it got some recognition for everybody. It started a process. John [Francis] came to my last year's conference, and he met a prosthetist that volunteered to help him with the situation,” Free said. “The 3D prosthetic arm started something fabulous.”
One of Joseph’s favorite hobbies is playing the drums. Without prosthetics, Free said, Joseph had to strap the drum sticks on with sweatbands or whatever would hold them to his arms. However, because of community outreach, he received new prosthetics that had the ability to attach drumsticks and other objects to increase his functionality.
“Because of the 3D printed project, it enlightened people and brought attention to the whole ordeal, and then it grew from there,” she said. “He was able to get actual functional, really good, form fitting, really cool-looking arms.”
Free said that the bond of working toward a goal with the help of the community made all the efforts worth it.
“It's absolutely amazing. For me as an amputee and to be able to accomplish things that you would never be able to accomplish is just so gratifying. It's just been one fabulous thing after another.”
This story was updated the morning of Mon., Jan. 27 to correct a capitalization error in the headline and the attribution of photos of Joseph. Those photos were taken and provided by Ricca Francis, not Laura Horton.