Article by Polly Goss
With a mission to change the way engineers learn about their field, Melissa McCullough in the Department of Bioengineering, mentors students through her Bionic Arm Creative Inquiry. Inspired by the e-NABLE community, which provides free prosthetic limbs to children, McCullough’s team of twelve students works to create 3D printed prosthetic arms. However, the goal of the project is not a physical product. McCullough wants to provide an environment in which students from any discipline can come into the lab and develop their engineering skills, collaborate and take on leadership roles. This project’s purpose is to inspire students to step out of their comfort zones and to learn about different aspects of engineering. “It helps us become well-rounded engineers,” senior bioengineering major Kylee Denardo said. As soon as the Bionic Arm Creative Inquiry began, the roster filled almost immediately with bioengineering majors. Now, the team has expanded to other engineering majors. Students from different disciplines are coming to explore, experiment and, most importantly, to interact with each other and learn about different types of engineering.
While many students are drawn to the project to gain practical experience in the lab, McCullough has less tangible goals in mind. She wants to eliminate the fear of failure that sometimes keeps students from trying new things. This is why the Bionic Arm team is not currently fitting an arm to a human.
McCullough does not want her students to feel the pressure of working to fit a specific person or working toward a concrete deadline.
“It encourages people to go outside their comfort zone and not be afraid of learning. A lot of people when they start in the Creative Inquiry want to start with SOLIDWORKS® design because everyone’s taken a class on how to design hands and things, but people are scared to program or to design a circuit because they haven’t done it before. I think showing people that it can be done and that it’s really not that difficult helps grow people’s own individual toolboxes,” Andrew Sedler, a senior bioengineering major, said.
While students like Sedler work toward producing a product, McCullough wants to see them learn to work together and become leaders. According to McCullough, this transformation has been apparent in Sedler. “Andrew came to my group last semester. Amazing technical talent. You could see that immediately. He started breadboarding stuff, throwing stuff in these cool serial programs, and really impressing everybody with his knowledge. What was hard for him was to work as a team, to make sure other people came with him. That was a hurdle he was able to get over.” McCullough said.
“The goal is not to build a product, it’s to build a better engineer,” McCullough said.
For the first few years, the main focus of the Bionic Arm Creative Inquiry has been learning to work as a collaborative group and to experiment without fear of failure.
Looking forward, McCullough hopes to focus more on producing a physical, functional product. For now, she is satisfied with the team learning to combine their experience and skills. As for building a functioning 3D printed prosthetic arm, that is still in the team’s future. For now, the focus on developing the team itself will pay off as the students move into the workforce. “The goal is not to build a product, it’s to build a better engineer,” McCullogh said.