Giving to the World through 3D Printing for Work and Family at NRCC


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IMAG0629It’s not enough just to have a fancy makerspace, it only becomes something powerful as a result of the people who are participating in it. The New River Valley Community College (NRCC) Fab Lab is quickly becoming a happening place thanks in part to the efforts of instructor Jeff Levy who brings both a passion for 3D design and a desire to help others together in a way that students are finding to be very appealing.

Levy’s students have been garnering national attention for some time now, most especially for their designs for unmanned aircraft and drones, even winning an award in one of the oldest aircraft design competitions in existence. There is no denying that this kind of work is fun, but Levy found himself thinking he would like to use 3D printing to create something more profoundly helpful to people.

In an interview with, he described this realization:

“This is all very cool stuff and it is great recognition for the students, the program, and the college, but I wanted to do something that would change the lives of people for the better. I have been working with 3D printing technology for over 10 years and after seeing a few videos of the 3D printing hands and what kind of impact they had on people who received them, I knew this was the right direction to go.”

IMAG0622There’s more to this than the generalized wish to do well, however. Levy comes from a family that has touted the values of helping others and has as an excellent role model the work of his father, a gifted surgeon who spent some seven years after retirement traveling the world to provide medical care for people in developing countries who either couldn’t afford it or simply couldn’t get access to it.

Levy’s father provided both an influence and an impetus for his son’s desire to create prosthetic hands. After returning to the United States from his most recent trip to Afghanistan, Levy’s father suffered an accident when he fell from a tree and broke his neck.

“I remember looking at him lying in the hospital bed and telling myself there has to be something I can design so that he would not lose the use of his hands,” Levy told us. “I started sketching an exoskeleton mechanical hand that would mount on the outside of a glove that would exercise the muscles in his hand. He was fortunate and regained almost all of his use in his right arm and limited in his left. So, I did not continue my development of the mechanism.”

IMAG0653However, this past summer when searching for a meaningful project for his students, his mind cast back on the purpose of his father’s work and on his father’s accident and he decided to create a project in which they were engaged in the design, fabrication, and advanced manufacturing process of creating prosthetic hands. IMAG0647Over the course of the project, the students worked with e-NABLE, a group we write about often, and Peter Binkley, one of the top 3D mechanical prosthetic hand designers in the world who, conveniently enough, lives only five miles from NRCC.

The ability to inspire students to work to make the lives of their fellow human beings better is such a valuable contribution by teachers to humanity that is often overlooked. One teacher has the opportunity to magnify ideas and actions across successive generations of students, creating a more profound impact than any specific project or contribution. Levy’s students are lucky to be introduced to these ideas under his guidance just as his father is lucky to have a son who cares so deeply for him.RhDrWx36WwchIdyrdCjcVupjSdyjaeCM9v_LaQnjGXM

The impact that projects like this will make in individual lives difficult to fully imagine. My grandmother was a fantastically talented artist who produced work in multiple media throughout her career and whose works have been widely recognized for their power and beauty. Towards the end of her life, she was suffering from the effects of Parkinson’s and her hands became too unruly to be used even to feed herself, much less to create. I was confronted with the horror of that reality when I cleared out her studio this last spring and found her paintbrush near an unfinished piece. There was a moment when she was able to hold the brush for the last time, and even though she lived for several years after that moment, it was then that she had truly died. We all go, in the end, but any work that helps the beauty of our lives remain with us until that moment, is among the greatest contributions to humanity that can be made.  Discuss this story in the NRCC 3D Printed Hand forum on

Mood Indigo by Jacklyn Friedman

Mood Indigo by Jacklyn Friedman

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