Students Use Self-Directed Learning to Serve Their Community, One Foot at a Time

Surrounded by farm fields in rural Arkansas, Abby Simmons, Matthew Cook and Darshan Patel, 8th grade students at Armorel High School, completed a community based project that garnered national media attention earlier this year. They successfully printed a 3-D prosthetic foot for an Indian Runner Duck named Peg.

The high school students teach themselves how to use 3-D printers and run state-of-the-art software in for photography, design, video, music and virtual animation (just to name a few) under the guidance of Armorel High School teacher Alicia Bell.

“You can teach yourself how to do different software,” Simmons said, “or anything you would like to learn about.”

The students attending the rural school in the unincorporated community of Armorel are eager to help alleviate needs they discover in their community and school. They design solutions using technological tools and resources, while developing invaluable skills in critical thinking, problem solving and collaboration.

Claim to Fame

When Simmons, Cook and Patel discovered Peg’s situation, they asked the duck’s owner if they could help. Peg’s prosthetic foot took the students months of planning, designing and testing.

An elderly lady sits on a chair in a kitchen holding a white duck with three 8th-grade children (a boy, girl, boy) standing behind her.

Cook, Simmons, and Patel (pictured from left to right) stand with Peg the duck and its owner.

“We found out about Peg on Facebook. When he was a baby, he didn’t have a leg.” Patel said. “Now he can run, and he wasn’t able to do that before the prosthetic.”

 

Remarkably, Armorel High School’s story is bigger than the students’ success with Peg’s leg. Bell’s classroom is full of students tackling other real life issues through innovation and technology. She has been building the program in her classroom through a combination of advanced and challenging projects.

“I love this type of classroom,” Bell said. “There are a lot of schools that are going in this innovation route and maker-space route.”

Because of the classroom’s self-directed learning environment, Bell said the students are invested in the projects they work on, and will even come to school to edit or modify their projects over the students’ breaks. She said the skills they develop through the course of their projects carry with them beyond the classroom.

“We have to relate to our projects by connecting the projects to the community and school,” Simmons said.

Acquiring Technology

The Federal Communications Commission highlighted the disparity of rural schools’ access to advanced telecommunication capabilities in their 2016 Broadband Progress Report. Despite having just 200 seventh through twelfth grade students, Armorel High School’s classrooms are equipped with the kind of advanced technology rarely available to students in similar rural communities, provided by a nonprofit that supplies the school with technology, facilitation, student training, its classroom model and other resources.

The photo shows a girl in the foreground making an adjustment to an input to a 3D printer while behind her a boy works on a computer connected to the printer.

Abby Simmons (left) adjusts the flexible red filament used to 3-D print Peg’s prosthetic.

Before Peg waddled into the students’ path, they were using measurements derived from photographs to 3-D print a custom shoe insert for a student at Armorel who had a physical condition requiring her to wear medically made shoes. The flexible shoe insert allowed the student to wear footwear beyond her medically made shoes.

Bell said the special education teacher expressed a need to help students in the program to practice transitional skills. Bell and her students, who were experimenting with virtual animation, began brainstorming ways they could help.

“We are creating transitional fields, virtual reality environments,” Bell said. “One of our environments is a grocery store, so [the students with disabilities] can use a 3-D projector or 3-D googles, and they can walk through practicing these real life skills they need to be functional in life.”

Bell and her students entered these projects in a competition and won a grant in the ‘Sophistication and Innovation’ category. They used their award money to purchase a larger 3-D printer, which they used to construct Peg’s prosthetic.

From The Ground Up

Bell said she and her students started from the ground up, having no previous knowledge of how to use the 3-D printers. Even though they were faced with challenges, the students remained positive and committed to the project.

“There was never a dull moment. We weren’t going to stop,” Simmons said. “We never tried to give up during the project.”

Patel and Cook spent an entire year learning how to operate the 3-D printers. Patel said YouTube videos were a useful resource in navigating the printing software. They experimented with hard and soft filaments and adjusting the heat and speed settings on the printers.

“You have to learn a lot about different softwares and how to work with them,” Patel said, ‘because you can’t just use one and you’ll be done.”

More than a dozen red, white, orange and fluorescent green prosthetic duck feet stand on a wooden table amidst several prosthetic legs.

The three 8th graders were committed to perfecting Peg’s prosthetic leg, learning through the errors evidenced by the multitude of test models pictured here.

Through the long and arduous process of trial and error, the students exercised their problem solving abilities when printing Peg’s prosthetic.

“We had a lot of problems finding the right size for Peg’s leg, making holes for the hind toe, and with the print not coming out right,” Patel said.

Eventually, the students overcame the project’s hurdles and printed a prosthetic that increased Peg’s mobility and allowed the duck to run.

Simmons said Peg’s owner cried tears of joy when she watched Peg run for the first time. The three 8th graders were also there, along with Bell, and said they were happy to know they made the duck’s life better.

A Strong Start

Bell said she is excited to witness what the students will accomplish in her classroom in the future. According to Bell, he students have been contacted by people all over the nation after their story circulated. However, just like in the beginning, the 8th graders are keeping their focus on the community.

Patel said the students are currently working on 3-D printing another prosthetic leg – for a local chicken.

“They’re only in 8th grade,” Bell said. “I feel like this is going to give them a lot of opportunities because they have four more years to get going.”

 

Savanna Barksdale is an intern from Texas Tech University at the U.S. Department of Education.

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Photo at the top: Matthew Cook, Darshan Patel and Abby Simmons (left to right) collaborate as a group and analyze a model of the 3-D prosthetic duck leg at Armorel high School.