Sara Project

3D printing benefits for the art room and special needs students

Pioneer Christopher Sweeney writes about a collaboration that enabled a young girl with Cerebral Palsy to draw and paint without aid.

For those that do not know me, I am a Philadelphia based artist, designer, and educator who teaches at a very special school called Charter High School for Architecture and Design (CHAD), which is right around the corner from the very famous Liberty Bell. Not only am I an Ultimaker Pioneer, but I am also an Ambassador for Chibitronics, Morphi, and MakeyMakey.

Last year I got to work on a project last year with my senior Design students here at CHAD that helped benefit another student with whom they did not know, nor had they ever met in person. This student’s name was Sara and she has Spastic Diplegia Cerebral Palsy. Sara is nonverbal and uses adaptive technology, an iGaze computer unit, to interact with the world. Her art teacher at Marsh Creek 6th Grade Center in Chester County, PA,  Ms. Laura Roth, approached me after we attended a session at the Pennsylvania Art Education Association conference in October of last year at Moore College of Art & Design in Philadelphia. The session was led by Eiko Fan, an artist, educator and activist. Fan created an art program at the Home for the Merciful Saviour (HMS) for Children with Cerebral Palsy. Seeing this amazing woman speak about art that changes lives sparked an idea.


Eiko Fan
Eiko Fan speaking at Moore College of Art & Design, PAEA 2016

After the session, Laura and I were chatting and I told her that I was having a hard time finding someone to print a prosthetic for. I wanted my students to be able to see the fruits of their labor, not just use design thinking or ideate about something that should or could be built. Laura had previously worked with someone with cerebral palsy and design knowledge, but the 3D printed results did meet her requirements. Laura suggested we design for Sara, who, as far as he she knew, had never drawn unaided in her life. Sara was in 6th grade when this project began, and it’s been called the Sara Project ever since.

Last year I had a senior class called Interpretive Design that was inspired by the 1970's Fluxus Movement and incorporated 3D printing, electronics (like the MakeyMakey) and interactive media and design. My Interpretive Design students were invited to visit Comcast's’ Accessibility Lab where they were exposed to ongoing projects that the designers were working on for customers who needed equipment with modifications. Julie Biron Maletz , the senior UX industrial designer and Michael Jou, another one of their talented designers, had visited us the week before to do some design thinking and sketching. Joel Moffatt, our tour guide for our visit, himself visually impaired, gave us an awesome tour of their lab. My students also had the opportunity to see the new television controller that was about to be sent out for manufacturing.

After our visit to the Accessibility Lab I implemented the Genius Hour. I wanted to my students to have some agency about what they learned in their design education.  If you are unfamiliar with Google’s Genius Hour, it started out as a program that reserved 15-20% of an employee's time during the week to work on passion projects. Many products like Gmail started out as a Genius Hour project.

I made the design challenge for Sara a class project. The students drew and sketched and transformed their ideas in Tinkercad. They worked for several weeks and then we voted on the best design. Two of my students who had collaborated together were the winners. Their design for Sara became their Genius Hour project that they would work on for many months, as it took them many iterations to develop their working prototype.

prototyping with tinkercad

We worked with Colorfabb Next Gen Semiflex filament to print the base of the prototype. After having a few issues with getting the size correct, we used Buildtak tape on the heated bed to assure that the print stuck during the long build time. We ended up printing several prototypes over an extended period of time. After we printed the final prototype, it was time to ship it to Sara for her to try it out. Even though Sayyid and Dino had fashioned a felt inner core, Laura had to make a few modifications on-site to make the device fit more comfortably. Laura also added some purple duct tape, Sara’s favorite color, to make sure pencils and brushes would not slip out. Sara was overjoyed, to say the least. Through her typed message via her computer, her message said,”I love it!”

printing and Iterating

hour of code

sara with device

Both Laura and I had the distinct pleasure of presenting our project at this year's Pennsylvania Art Education Association convention in Pittsburgh. We were overjoyed to be able to show the art and design community how 3D printing and collaboration can help not only special needs students, but how it can create change in a grassroots and DIY way via different schools, communities, and age groups. I know I learned a great deal, as did my students, as well as everyone involved.

I love it

Sara project

Finished piece