Teacher Uses School’s 3D Printer to Make a Plastic Finger for Injured Student to Take Exams


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When I was in elementary school many years ago, a good friend of mine was injured when one of the fingers on her right hand accidentally got smashed in her family minivan’s sliding door. It was near the end of the school year, but we still had plenty of homework and quizzes, and as my friend was right-handed, she was unable to write. So our teacher and some of the students pitched in to help, taking turns writing for her in class. This was way before 3D printers regularly appeared in schools, of course; otherwise, perhaps there could have been a better solution, like the plastic 3D printed finger that 15-year-old Oliver Smith of Derbyshire currently sports after he nearly died in a freak cycle accident.

Oliver Smith recovering in hospital

Smith was attempting to fix the brakes on a friend’s bike, and rode down a ramp behind his house to test them. Realizing that he would crash into the house, he put his arms out to brace himself for impact, and his right hand went through a glass window. He was dangling over the ground, his arm trapped by broken glass, but when he pulled it out to free himself, he severed two nerves and a main artery. Luckily his parents were nearby and rushed quickly to his aid.

“I screamed and my mum and dad came running,” Smith said. “They grabbed tea towels and tied them around my arm to apply pressure.”

They drove to nearby Ilkeston Community Hospital; by the time Smith arrived, he had lost five pints of blood. After a tourniquet was applied, Smith was transported to Queen’s Medical Centre (QMC) in Nottingham, where he was taken to the operating room for a seven-hour reconstructive surgery. The next day he had another operation after suffering a blood clot, but doctors were able to save his arm.

Smith said, “Before both of my operations they told me that it was very likely that I would lose my arm and when I came out of the second surgery and looked down I saw that my arm was still there so that was an instant relief. I was in intensive care and stayed in hospital for four days after that. I came home with a big cast on and now I wear a splint.”

Smith has since had a skin graft to help his arm heal, but it doesn’t help with his schoolwork. He is currently studying for his GCSE exams (General Certificate of Secondary Education), which secondary education students in England and Wales take over a period of two years. James Wheldon, Smith’s design technology teacher at St. John Houghton Catholic Academy, knew that the GCSEs would be a big problem for Smith without being able to use his right hand, and first thought about trying to attach a pen to the end of the splint so Smith could type. But then he thought of a more innovative plan, which involved 3D printing.

Smith and teacher James Wheldon with the 3D printer

“We were just talking about what we were going to do about my GCSE coursework and Mr Wheldon said he had an idea,” Smith explained. “He said he could design a finger and use the 3D printer in school to make it.”

It’s not the first time we’ve seen a school 3D printer used to make prosthetics: teachers at a charter school in Tennessee worked with the Enable Community Foundation to 3D print a prosthetic arm for an 8th grader, and the Human-Computer Interaction Institute made a 3D printed prosthesis so a young student was able to play the cello. I don’t know what the numbers are in the UK, but nearly 40 US schools have programs specifically to 3D print prosthetic limbs, partly because they are much more affordable now.

The 3D printed plastic finger that Wheldon made attaches to the end of Smith’s splint, which he has to wear for the next 18 months. He’ll be able to complete his GCSEs with little trouble now, as the 3D printed finger implement means he can type using both hands.

“He drilled a hole into the end of my splint and it fits in there; it’s pretty amazing,” Smith said.

Oliver Smith demonstrates how the finger is helping him to use a keyboard to complete his GCSEs

Wheldon was glad he was able to help Smith out with a solution for his exams.

“It only took about 15 minutes to design and print it out. We’ve made a few prototypes and we are still finalising the design,” Wheldon said. “I think it’s been a big help. We’ve still got to work out how he will do the practical part of his GCSE but hopefully having the finger, which we call Claw 5, will have a big impact. He’s such a resilient young man.”

Doctors tell Smith that once the nerves in his right hand have re-grown, he may only regain 40-70% of the feeling back, but that’s not slowing him down. He’s making sure to keep up with his regular check-ups at the hospital, and will be going on a World Challenge trip to Nepal this July with the school, which Wheldon is leading.

“I think the finger is fantastic and it’s given Oliver more independence as he will have to learn to do everything with his left hand now,” said Smith’s mom, Lucy. “Mr Wheldon has been brilliant; he’s been so supportive of Oliver and really taken him under his wing.”

Smith says he’s “extremely grateful” to his teacher for his help, and for his new 3D printed finger.

“It’s made life much easier although it’s taken a while to get used to. I’m really grateful to him; he’s gone above and beyond what I’d expect a teacher to do. My product design GCSE is 60% coursework and I can type now so hopefully I’ll be able to complete it,” Smith said.

To hear the story in Smith and Wheldon’s own words, check out the video below:

Discuss in the 3D Printed Prosthetic Finger forum at 3DPB.com.

[Source/Images: Derby Telegraph]


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