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North Hills Monthly

Students Designing Device to Help Trumpeter Continue to Play

Jan 31, 2018 01:59PM ● By Shari Berg

Ryan Scott creates a plaster cast of T.J.'s arm that will help the engineering students accurately size anything they create.

The success–and sometimes failure–of the engineering design process is not a new experience for students in the Engineering Design course at Hampton High School. From brainstorming to prototyping to modeling and production, the students engage in hands-on projects which provide a real-world engineering experience. 

In December, the students were tasked with a very unique project which would directly benefit a Hampton Middle School sixth-grader. Middle schooler T.J. Wilson loves playing his trumpet; however, playing it can be quite challenging, just like many other tasks in his life. At just 20 months old, T.J. was a heart transplant recipient. Due to complications from the transplant, which caused blood clots, doctors had to amputate his left arm just above the elbow joint. 

Though T.J. has a prosthetic arm, the prosthetic must be manually adjusted every time he wants to flex his “elbow” in a different direction because he is missing his elbow joint. This makes playing and supporting the trumpet very difficult. T.J. has had to learn how to adapt to many situations due to the amputation, finding new and creative ways to complete tasks. 

“If you can imagine going through the day with one arm up and only having your elbow to help you, that gives you an idea of how hard it can be,” said T.J.’s mom, Lori Wilson. But being able to balance and support his trumpet–even while wearing his prosthetic arm–was proving to be one adaptation that T.J. was unable to make, creating the very real possibility that he might have to give up playing the instrument he loved. 

Hampton Middle School music teacher Lurrene Parker took the issue to the high school engineering program to see if there was anything the students could do to help. After hearing about the situation, the students decided that this was a challenge they were willing to meet head-on—with failure not an option. 

“Any time you do real-world, authentic projects like this one, there is no saying ‘Well, I tried, but I didn’t get it done,’” said Ryan Scott, a technology education instructor at Hampton High School. “Because the project impacts one of their peers, there’s a little bit of pressure on the students to get it done and to get their best work out of it.” 

The first challenge involved creating an extension device that would allow T.J. to adequately support his trumpet without having to readjust his prosthetic arm every time he needed to reposition the instrument while playing, which is a frequent occurrence for trumpet players. Students also had to address the fact that T.J.’s arm was amputated above his elbow joint, and that without the use of this joint, T.J.’s prosthetic device was not as flexible as it would have been with the joint intact. The arm locks manually at the elbow, forcing T.J. to use his other arm to adjust the prosthetic device, making it cumbersome to move. 

Time constraints were also an issue—the students were asked to design and produce a viable product in just two to three weeks. For senior Mike Stegeman, the time frame was a bigger challenge than coming up with a design that would fit T.J.’s needs. 

“It would have been ideal to spend more time with T.J. during our design phase, being able to go back and forth and collaborate with him on our ideas,” he said. “But since we couldn’t do that, it was definitely the biggest challenge for me.” 

The students worked in several teams with each generating an idea for how to design the extender. Ninth-grader Richie Donato and eleventh-grader Chris Ference based their design on schematics for a product they found whose inventor had shared it on an engineering design website. Ference and Donato determined that the device could be fitted to the bottom of T.J.’s trumpet easily, and they could then build upon that piece to reduce the amount of time needed for the design phase. 

“We found this and decided it would work with what we wanted to do, so that was our starting point,” said Ference. “We decided there was no need to reinvent the wheel.”

Donato said that the location of T.J.’s amputation above the elbow was what he found the most challenging. During his research, he found very little on amputees without elbow joints, which made the design concept phase harder, but that wasn’t stopping him from completing his task. “I have some ideas on how to get around that, and right now, I’m going through the trial and error part of testing to see if it will work,” he said.

Once a design is chosen, the students will fabricate it on a 3-D printer in the engineering lab. Scott said future engineering design classes will be able to use the schematics to scale the device to fit T.J. as he continues to grow. 

While Scott doesn’t think the device is something the students will be able to market due to its uniqueness for T.J.’s situation, there was value in having them participate in the project. Not only were students inspired by knowing that they were helping another student, but it also gave them the motivation to continue to create and innovate and share their ideas with others after they leave his classroom. 

“It certainly is also impressive to have it on your resume that you worked on a project of this caliber in high school,” he said.