Kids Design Their Own Prosthetics in ‘Superhero Cyborgs’ Workshop

“They can design for their own needs, which creates a beautiful closed-loop cycle where designer equals tester and end user.”

KIDMob co-founder Kate Ganim with Kieren, 13, who called his project the “Nubinator.”

With wearable devices, as with much of the world’s products, it’s one size fits all. Not necessarily in terms of the device’s physical dimensions, but in the way customization is sacrificed at the altar of the assembly line. The Bay Area-based organization KIDmob, a “mobile, kid-integrated design firm,” rejects this norm, holding workshops where kids build customized solutions to meet local needs. One of their more recent endeavors is Superhero Cyborgs, a workshop where kids—both with and without disabilities—design and build wearable devices that can serve as what KIDmob calls “a potential alternative to their upper limb prosthetics.”

From January 15 to 19, KIDMob and Autodesk teamed up for “Superhero Cyborgs 2.0” at Autodesk’s Pier 9 design space. There, six kids created their own “superpowers” through personalized wearable devices. Working alongside professional designers and engineers, the kids learned about 3D modeling and digital fabrication, from the CAD process to 3D printing.

13-year-old David learns Autodesk’s Fusion 360 CAD software to model his wearable prototype.

In “Project Unicorn,” 10-year-old Jordan Reeves created a five-nozzle glitter shooter for her arm. David Botana, age 13, created “Sport Splint,” a purple splint with modular attachments for a Nerf gun device and a horse-riding attachment, which allows him to hold onto the reins. Looking to beat her siblings in water gun fights, 12-year-old Sydney Howard created a dual-water-gun arm activated by elbow movement. Kieran Blue Coffee, who is 13, created the “Nubinator,” an e-NABLE hand that he tricked out with LED lights and an aluminum attachment that allows him to carry heavier loads. And 10-year-old Riley Gonzalez augmented an e-NABLE prosthetic with a detachable bow and arrow.

“One of the main motivations for the work we do is exposing kids (and adults) to ‘21st-century skills’ in a meaningful way,” Kate Ganim, KIDMob co-founder and co-director, tells GOOD. “Design is creative problem solving—it is bringing ideas to reality. Our workshops are very active, with lots of improv, hands-on making, discussion and sharing, and playful discovery.”

Sean Boatright, a professional prosthetist, discusses the fit of Jordan’s wearable prototype.

“The kids had a blast [and] all took ownership over their individual body mods, and were excited enough about the work they did to confidently and articulately share their work and experience in front of a group of 40-plus unknown adults at Pier 9,” she adds. “The parents were mostly amazed that the kids were able to learn and do so much in such a short time frame, and excited that they were exposed to such cutting-edge tools and software.”

One of Ganim’s favorite moments was when Riley Gonzalez was troubleshooting a prototype that used an e-NABLE hand as a base. One of the workshop facilitators, Andreas Bastian, realized he already had a device assembled that was similar to Riley’s, along with some random parts.

The initial sketches and ideation of “Project Unicorn,” a five-nozzle glitter shooter by 10-year-old Jordan

“For the sake of time, we [told] Riley that he could use the fully assembled device and build off of that, adding attachments, etc.,” Ganim says. “His response was ‘Is it ok if I use the other parts instead? This one is already a finished product, I’d rather design my own!’ Could not have been more proud he chose that route!”

Autodesk, a company that builds computer-aided drafting software, became involved with Superhero Cyborgs 2.0 after two of its former interns, Phume Mthimunye and Maya Kremien (graduate students at the California College of the Arts), joined the workshop. After reading the proposal, Sarah O’Rourke, Audodesk’s senior product marketing manager for consumer and 3D printing, says that the decision to get involved was a “no-brainer.” Autodesk provided financial support to the families for travel and housing and made their Pier 9 space available for the workshop.

Sydney with her dual-water-gun wearable prior to the final presentation

“The participants started with an introduction to 3D design and 3D modeling with Tinkercad, a free browser-based CAD tool, for an introduction to 3D printing,” O’Rourke tells GOOD. “During the second day, the students created a casting of their limbs, then had the opportunity to use a 3D scanner and modify a custom 3D cuff with Fusion 360. It was great to see the kids start using these tools and have the facilitators show them where they could go over time.”

Even though the workshop is over, Ganim says KIDMob has “buddied” each kid with a professional designer for the next three months or so. The idea is that the pairs can keep developing their prototypes in collaboration, but with the kids still driving the design process. Autodesk will also keep supporting the participants with tools and resources.

The final presentation, on day five of the workshop, in which the participants presented their prototypes

O’Rourke hopes this is just the start of a relationship with KIDMob for future Superhero Cyborg workshops. They’re also discussing how to package the workshop into a curriculum for teachers to access at Project Ignite, Autodesk’s open learning platform, and then bring it into classrooms.

“If we can inspire any of the participants to start thinking like a designer and empower them to create their own devices, then that is successful,” says O’Rourke.

Ganim’s hope is that the kids come away from the workshop realizing that they can create and implement ideas that change the world, while gaining tools, skills, and confidence.

“Kids will hopefully realize that they’re not beholden to whatever devices are available on the market,” Ganim says. “They can design for their own needs, which creates a beautiful closed-loop cycle where designer equals tester and end user.”

Sean Boatright, a professional prosthetist, helps Sydney design her “dual-water-gun wearable”

Jordan with her prototype for “Project Unicorn,” a five-nozzle glitter shooter

The sketches of Riley’s e-NABLE hand with detachable bow and arrow

via Gage Skidmore / Flickr

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