Author Technology and Engineering Teacher - Volume 80, Issue 4 - December/January 2021
PublisherITEEA, Reston, VA
ReleasedNovember 23, 2020
Technology and Engineering Teacher - Volume 80, Issue 4 - December/January 2021

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TETDec20Gran1“Teaching about assistive devices provides young students with a different perspective on the value of technology.”



Creating a community rather than an institution is a goal that all educators should strive to meet. To do this, school districts try to unify their student bodies by bringing attention to an obstacle too many children face—bullying. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, kids who are perceived as being different are at a high risk of being bullied (2018). To combat this statistic, school districts across the country launch initiatives to reduce bullying by promoting inclusion through acceptance. Examples of school-wide anti-bullying curriculums include the No Place for Hate initiative by the Anti-Defamation League and the Start With Hello Week program from the Sandy Hook Promise organization (2019). To support these excellent programs, teachers must supplement the communal goals of their district with effective lessons that touch on the key collective values. As a result, children will learn important social skills in addition to their core area course information.


In order to draw attention to this problem, English language arts teachers have the option of reading or discussing literature pertaining to bullying. One of the more recently published novels about inspiring children to be more accepting of others is Wonder by R. J Palacio. Wonder tells a story about a boy named Auggie who struggles to be accepted by his fifth-grade peers due to a severe facial difference (Palacio, 2012). This inspiring tale teaches readers how empathy and kindness can make a difference in others’ lives. Social studies teachers can use past events to illustrate how society has learned the importance of accepting different cultures (Nash & Crabtree, 1996). In the T&E classroom, topics involving bullying can be difficult to include in everyday lessons. At a middle school in Chester County, PA, a TE teacher presents a unit on assistive devices to his eighth-grade class to show how engineers use creative design techniques to evoke confidence in kids who may feel left out by their peers.


The lessons presented in the assistive-device design unit provide students with the experience of going through the design process. First, the class will learn about how industrial designers engineer products to be ergonomic. Then students conduct research and brainstorm different assistive devices to gain background knowledge about the devices they will soon be building. These preliminary steps prepare the students to build a model of their creation, which they will eventually test. The project portion of this unit also provides multiple pathways for the students to exercise mastery of the design process. The project is evaluated on the integration of a child-friendly theme, the device’s performance, and product-engineering techniques.


The Inspiration

Using technology to empower a child’s self-esteem has gained some attention in recent months. During Super Bowl LIII, Microsoft advertised a revolutionary product that will allow a greater population of users to experience the Xbox One system. Microsoft recently developed an adaptive controller for people with limited mobility (2019) with large buttons that can be programed for any operation and multiple auxiliary jacks to connect external switches, buttons, or joysticks (Microsoft, 2019). This innovation and others like it strive to restore confidence in those who may feel excluded due to their indivudual challenges.


TETDec2-Gran3Rapid advancements in technology have allowed less prominent companies to make their contributions as well. Limbitless Solutions is a nonprofit organization created with the intention of making advanced assistive device technology accessible to all (Limbitless Solutions, 2018). This organization, with a devoted group of designers, was the dream of aerospace engineer Albert Manero (Barth, 2018). While a graduate student at the University of Central Florida in 2014, Manero gathered a team of engineers hoping to support people in need of affordable prosthetic limbs. Manero’s first client was a six-year-old boy in need of a prosthetic arm (Limbitless Solutions, 2018). Using three-dimensional printing technology, Manero built a bionic arm that could be operated by flexing existing arm muscles. The reasonable price tag of $350 was not the only compelling feature of this device (Wagstaff, 2015). Manero designed the arm to look like the arm of a popular comic book character. When Microsoft’s Collective Project posted an online video of Robert Downey, Jr. delivering an Iron Man prosthetic arm to the boy, the story went viral (Wagstaff, 2015). More recently Limbitless Solutions has collaborated with the developers of the popular video game series League of Legends and Halo to create prosthetic arms that look like characters from those games (Barth, 2018).


The idea of incorporating a child-friendly theme into the assistive device design project was inspired by Albert Manero’s dream. He created his robotic arms with the intention of evoking confidence in children using themes from popular culture. One of the project criteria requires the students to integrate a design into their assistive device that a child would find desirable. This aspect allows students to artistically express their interests by personalizing their prosthetic hand. More importantly, it shows students how engineers can use their talents to help create a culture in which everyone in our community feels included.


The Design Process

Since the turn of the century the educational system has become increasingly focused on creating effective problem solvers. This project incorporates many of the skills that all students should practice in preparation for life after graduation. Some of these attributes include creativity, critical thinking, and innovation (Battelle for Kids, 2019). There are three main parts that make up the problem the students have to solve for the assistive-devices design project. They must use their creativity to incorporate an empowering theme into their design that inspires confidence in adolescent users. They must think critically if they are to ensure that the device performs the task accurately and consistently. Finally, the device must have two innovations that improve its ability to fit the human body. The students will use the design process to help them create an assistive device that accomplishes all these requirements.


TETDec20Gran3According to the International Technology Education Association (ITEA/ITEEA), “Design is regarded by many as the core problem-solving process of technological development” (2007, p. 90). To guide the class through this project, the design process can be chunked into its main parts: defining the problem, researching, brainstorming ideas, selecting a solution, making a model, testing, redesigning, and communicating the results (ITEA/ITEEA, 2007). Other organizations, such as the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), have developed comparable models of the design process to illustrate how they solve problems. The steps in their iterative design process include: ask, imagine, plan, create, experiment, and improve (NASA, 2018). 


To demonstrate their ability to use the design process, students should practice activities that require them to complete each step of the design process before building the model. Examples could include: identifying why assistive devices are needed, researching what an assistive device is, brainstorming different techniques for making an assistive device fit to the human body, and sketching a blueprint for their chosen solution. After their project’s performance is perfected through repetitive testing and redesigning, it can be beneficial for students to exercise their communication skills by presenting their project to the class. 


The Project Performance

The model-making component of this project requires students to build a testable three-dimensional example of the assistive device they developed. To make this goal assessable to all students, the design brief has three tiered project options to choose from. Each student project option has the same three essential elements that determine success. The model must have a testable feature, follow guidelines that classify the device as ergonomic, and be designed with a theme that a child would find favorable. The project options are as follows: (a) create a prosthetic arm to accomplish any task that requires the use of a hand; (b) create a mechanical prosthetic arm that has bendable fingers; (c) redesign any assistive device and build a model of your innovation.  


The designation of the project tiers were composed according to the level of difficulty of each challenge. Having a tiered project gives students multiple pathways to gain the same essential knowledge and skills from the unit according to their interest, readiness, and learning profile (Tomlinson, 2014). One of the primary goals of this unit is for the students to learn the engineering design process. To fully experience the design process, they must test their creation (ITEA/ITEEA, 2007). The type of assistive device the students build is mutually exclusive from how the device operates. In accordance with the Technology Related Assistance for Individuals with Disabilities Act of 1988, assistive technology can be defined as any device that enables individuals with disabilities to perform tasks that allow them to further their independence. The breadth of this definition provides an extensive number of opportunities for students to demonstrate their understanding of an assistive device. As long as the model can be categorized as an assistive technology device, the students are practicing the design process to create a product that fits the human body. 


Before allowing the students to choose an option, the teacher must analyze data provided by previous kinesthetic assignments. Using this approach, the teacher can guide each student into the group where they will be most successful (Alber, 2017). A student who selects option “A” needs to design a prosthetic arm to accomplish any task requiring the use of the hand. To simulate a missing limb, the students must make a fist while testing the device (Brusic, 2009). The ambiguity of this design criteria allows students some flexibility in what they choose to create. Students who struggle with modeling can select a task that is tailored to their abilities. Option “B” is for students who feel more confident about their proficiency in model making. These devices simulate a robotic prosthetic arm by having mechanical fingers that bend using straws and string (Rumi & Instructables, 2017). The mechanical hand option was conceived with the intention of appealing to most students because it has moving parts. Option “C” is the more advanced choice, demanding more research and strenuous preparation. Students who choose this option must be comprehensively dedicated to the class. Their objective is to research any assistive device, create an effective innovation, apply it to the design, and build a testable model. This project provides students with more independence and allows them the opportunity to execute the entire technological design process by redesigning a product that already exists. Once the student determines which challenge to pursue, they will use the design process to help them accomplish the other requirements of the assignment.


TETDec20Gran5The Human Factors

Standards for Technological Literacy identifies multiple areas where technology and engineering teachers should inform their student of the impacts technology has on the daily lives of humans (ITEA/ITEEA, 2007). Standards 14 and 15 indicate that students should be fluent in their understanding of both medical and biotechnologies (ITEA/ITEEA, 2007). When designing assistive technology, it is important that engineers consider how that technology is going to interact with the human body. Sharon Brusic, a professor and Technology and Engineering Coordinator at Millersville University, instructs a unit on bioengineering in her Bio-Related Technologies course. (Millersville University, 2019). Her students engineer prosthetic cuffs that follow basic principles of human factors engineering. Their challenge is to design a prosthetic arm that would enable someone without a hand to handle an ice cream cone (Brusic, 2009). By completing the Cone Crazy project, these college-level students practice the design process while learning valuable engineering principles. The project portion of the assistive device unit uses the core concepts presented by Brusic’s project to teach eighth grade students specific techniques industrial designers use to engineer products that interact with the human body.


The assistive-device unit requires students to incorporate at least two special features that would make their assistive device more ergonomic. The aim of the principles of ergonomics is to fit the piece of technology or the job to the human body. This ensures that the device or process is safe, comfortable, and efficient (U.S. National Library of Medicine, 2019). Elements the students can change on their assistive devices to make them ergonomic include shape, size, texture, weight, and pressure (Brusic, 2007). By changing the shape and size of their devices, students can create a prosthetic arm that fits the contours of the arm. Adding texture in specific places and by using special construction techniques, students can make parts of the device lighter and easier to use. Using soft materials on parts that come in direct contact with the body can make the device more comfortable when it is worn by the user. Students can practice identifying these elements before building by touching, holding, and using specifically selected ergonomic products around the engineering laboratory. These elements can be applied to any part of the project as long as it improves the users’ experience while using the device to accomplish the selected task.


The Mechanical Hand

Because the project portion of this unit has multiple choices for the students, teachers have ample flexibility, depending on class size and dynamics. If a teacher wishes to keep the unit simple, it would be entirely appropriate to have all students build a mechanical prosthetic arm using the design process. Instructors can differentiate the model by demonstrating how to build the mechanical hand part step by step. After they build the mechanical hand, students can use their problem-solving skills and creativity to make the arm ergonomic and incorporate a child-friendly theme.


Required Materials and Tools

•      1/8” corrugated cardboard about 8.5 x 11 inch sheet per hand

•      Three 1/4” drinking straws

•      Fifty inches of yarn or string thin enough to fit through a straw

•      One 6mm pipe cleaner

•      One roll of 1/4” masking tape

•      A number two pencil

•      Ruler – to trace hand template and cut straws to correct length

•      Scissors – to cut hand template, straws, and string to correct measurements

•      Hot glue gun and glue sticks – to attach straws and string


Mechanical Hand Construction Process

1.     Cut out the hand template.

2.     Using loops of masking tape, attach the hand template to the cardboard so that the corrugating runs perpendicular to the fingers.

3.     Use a ruler to trace the outside of the hand template with a sharp pencil.

4.     Use a sharp pencil to poke holes through the template to mark the position and length of the straws on the cardboard.

5.     Remove the template and cut out the hand.

6.     Using the lines on the template as a guide, cut straws to the correct length.

7.     Using hot glue, attach straws in the correct positions on the hand (Rumi & Instructables, 2017).

8.     Using the pencil, poke a hole though the cardboard where noted on the template.

9.     Glue a 1/8” piece of straw inside the hole.

10.   Glue a 1/2” piece of straw on the reverse side of the hand under the straw to guide the string down to the wrist.

11.   Using the ruler, create a crisp crease, bend each of the fingers halfway between the straws and where the fingers meet the palm.

12.   Thread 10” of string though the straws and glue to the tops of the fingers (Rumi & Instructables, 2017).

13.   Cut out and trace the support piece templates on the remaining cardboard.

14.   Glue the cardboard support pieces in the position noted on template. 

15.   Create five 1” diameter loops out of the pipe cleaners.

16.   When the mechanical hand is complete, the students should custom fit a prosthetic cuff to their arm. Only once the device attaches to the arm can the students trim the strings to the correct length and tie the pipe cleaner loops to the ends. 



After the students build their assistive devices, they should test how the device performs. The students who chose the mechanical hand can attempt to pick up a sixteen-ounce plastic water bottle. The round shape is perfect for the fingers to wrap around. If you are using the template included in this article, the diameter of the bottle should not exceed 8 inches. The students can also adjust the weight of the bottle by adding water to evaluate grip strength.


Standards for Technological Literacy and Benchmarks

Standards for Technological Literacy (ITEA/ITEEA, 2007) provides content guidelines for technology and engineering teachers from K-12. Many of these standards relate directly or indirectly to the design process and the assistive devices the students create. The standards and benchmarks covered by this unit are as follows:

  • Standard 9, Benchmark C – The engineering design process involves defining a problem, generating ideas, selecting a solution, testing the solution(s), making the item, evaluating it, and presenting the results (p. 102).
  • Standard 9, Benchmark D – When designing an object, it is important to be creative and consider all ideas (p. 102).
  • Standard 9, Benchmark H – Modeling, testing, evaluating, and modifying are used to transform ideas into practical solutions (p. 103).
  • Standard 11, Benchmark J – Make two-dimensional and three-dimensional representations of the designed solution (p. 121).
  • Standard 14, Benchmark E – Technological advances have made it possible to create new devices to repair or replace certain parts of the body, and to provide means for mobility (p. 143).



The design process teaches students more than just how to be an engineer. Any teacher who has their students practice the steps of the design process is cultivating a population of skilled problem solvers. The assistive device project provides an additional benefit that other projects may lack. This unit teaches students how engineers can use their ingenuity to give kids confidence when they may feel dissimilar from others, all while teaching valuable design techniques and processes to be used in the future if they choose a career in that field.



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Brusic, S. A. (2007). Human factors engineering: An introduction. Slide presentation used in ITEC 140 Bio-Related Technologies at Millersville University, Millersville, PA.

Brusic, S. A. (2009, March 27). Getting started in bio-related technologies. Presentation delivered at the 71st annual conference of the International Technology Education Association conference, Louisville, KY.

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U.S. Government. (1988). Technology Related Assistance for Individuals With Disabilities Act of 1988, 29 U.S.C § 2201 et seq. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.

Wagstaff, K. (2015, March 13). Robert Downey Jr. gives 7-year-old boy ‘Iron Man’ prosthetic arm. Retrieved from .


Joshua Grannetino is the Applied Technology teacher at Owen J. Roberts Middle School and may be reached at


This is a refereed article.