Middle school students design prosthetic arms, computer apps

5/4/2017 | TACOMA, Washington

Vivian concentrated hard as she gripped a prosthetic arm and maneuvered it toward a packet of index cards. The silver fingers of the prosthetic arm reached for the cards and briefly held them before accidentally knocking the packet off the table. 

Vivian Nguyen, a sixth-grader at Gray Middle School, worked with classmates to build the prosthetic arm and compete in MESA Day at Pacific Lutheran University in late March. (MESA stands for Mathematics, Engineering, Sciences Achievement.) The team used district laptops to research how to build a prosthetic arm, and created it from household items like cardboard and salad tongs. 

Vivian and her teammates excelled overall, earning second place for their prosthetic arm. Other teams from Gray Middle School swept a MESA Day computer app design competition. The first-place team of eighth-grade girls will compete in the state MESA competition at Microsoft in Redmond on May 20. (Last year the same team won the state MESA computer app design competition.)

After the competition, Vivian reflected on what she could do better next year. 

“Maybe next time we need to build a flatter space in the hand, so the cards could slide in underneath,” she said after the competition among schools in the Puget Sound region. “We’re going to learn from our mistakes.” 

Events like MESA Day teach Vivian and classmates skills important to the district’s goals:
Students develop math, science and engineering skills, supporting the district goal of Academic Excellence
Students are exposed to a local university during the competition at Pacific Lutheran University, supporting the district goal of preparing students for college or a career
Students use district technology to build their prosthetic arms, supporting Tacoma’s commitment to leading Washington as the only innovative school district in the state

MESA clubs and classes exist in schools across Tacoma, including Sheridan, McCarver and Lister elementary schools; Gray and First Creek middle schools; and Foss, Lincoln and SAMI (Science and Math Academy) high schools. Anyone can join MESA. The organization especially reaches out to students traditionally underrepresented in science and math classes, such as girls, low-income students and students of color.  

Students prepare for MESA Day by working with district laptops to research anatomy and engineering. They write a 20-page technical paper and prepare a presentation for judges. Some students also build a computer app using the coding program Scratch. 

The equipment that students use to prepare for the competition comes thanks to voter support in 2014 for a technology levy that raised $10 million a year for new technology investments, such as student laptops.  

“The MESA experience is tremendous,” said Phil Schmidt, science teacher and MESA advisor at Gray. “It’s amazing to see some of these students excelling who otherwise sometimes get lost in the noise of day-to-day life.” 

Nerves and success  
Vivian and sixth-grade teammates Ellen Pak and Alana Pham didn’t know what to expect from their first opportunity to compete in MESA Day.

The students built their prosthetic arm from cardboard, elastic ties, salad tongs and a motorized engine. They stayed after school nearly every day for MESA Club, working with laptops and their materials to design their arm. 

Gray Middle School student Yong-woo Jeon 
demonstrates the prosthetic arm he and 
classmates made for MESA Day.
​ ​​​​​​​​​​“I just hope it works,” said Ellen ahead of time as she worked after school at Gray. 

During the competition the girls huddled together to make last-minute adjustments to their arm before showing it to the judges. The formal presentation involved giving a presentation and demonstration in front of a panel of judges who then asked questions. 

The presentation went better than the students thought it would, according to Ellen, as did picking up bean bags with the arm and tossing them.

Other teams partnered with community businesses while building their prosthetic arm. Gray eighth-grade students Yong-Woo Jeon, Charles Nguyen and Henry Nguyen used equipment at FabLab, a makerspace in downtown Tacoma with laser cutters, 3D printers, wood and metal shops, to cut materials for their arm. 

Tacoma community member Karen Benson, a recent retiree from the laboratory medicine department at St. Joseph’s Hospital, attended MESA Day to support Tacoma Public Schools’ participants. Benson volunteers with the MESA afterschool club at Gray, lending her science background to help students. 

“I’m so interested in getting women into science. There’s such a need for it,” Benson said. “It’s so exciting to see these girls coding. I’m encouraged by these students.” 
The Tacoma/South Puget Sound MESA started with 20 students in 1984. The program now serves more than 800 students, of whom 92 percent go on to colleges and universities across the country.