How One Teacher is Furthering Local STEM Education, One Prosthetic Arm at a Time

Dec 24, 2015

“You have four minutes--- you may begin.”

DAY: Geez Louise!

With a nervous and slightly sheepish grin, Kickapoo High School senior Brinn Day guides a homemade prosthetic arm to pick up a red disk and slide it over a wooden pole. The duct taped elbow of the arm she’s using trembles like a leaf on a tree.

DAY: Stop.

JANSEN: You’re doing great!

DAY: My hand’s getting sweaty!

Typically, prosthetic arms like the one Day is using aren’t made of duct tape, rubber bands, and Popsicle sticks. But prosthetic arms also aren’t made by high school students. In 45 minutes.

(bell dings) “Okay, that was a really good try…”

Thanks to Kickapoo High School Biomedical Science teacher Jami Jansen, these atypical classroom activities are becoming more common.

“My principal came to me about six years ago and said there’s this program I want you to look into—I think it’s going to be very fun, and be very engaging for the kids,” explains Jansen.

That program is a national Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics, or STEM, education movement called Project Lead the Way. The organization creates hands-on, innovative curriculum for students in every grade, and is used in nearly 400 schools in Missouri and over 8,000 schools across the U.S. One of the main focuses of PLTW is teacher training.

“It takes somebody willing to go do a two-week training session - we call it boot camp - for two weeks. You live there in Rolla and train about 8-10 hours a day, learning the coursework and background info,” says Jansen.

Now, Jansen works as a master teacher for the organization, training biomedical science teachers across the nation. And recently, she was recognized at a Project Lead the Way statewide conference as the Outstanding Biomedical Science Teacher.

“This is big, the kids are loving it, we just keep growing and adding classes,” says Jansen.

As I witness today’s prosthetic arm building contest in Jansen’s high school Biomedical Interventions class, it’s easy to see why the students find it enjoyable. With an easy going but firm attitude, Jansen starts the class by dividing her students into teams and explaining the challenge.

“To build a prosthetic arm, which will allow a member of your group to assemble rings on a rainbow stacker toy,” explains Jansen.

And it’s a speed contest.

“The winner will be the person who can assemble the most of them in five minutes.”

In order to win, however, there are guidelines: the arm must have a working elbow hinge, and,

“Your arm must have a grasping hand structure—now, obviously, I don’t expect you to build a hand with five fingers, but something that will grasp will be quite handy.”

Jansen sets a timer.

JANSEN: You have forty-five minutes. Go!

DAY: Oh my word.

Students are let loose to grab supplies off a table overflowing with plastic spoons, rubber bands, wooden sticks, straws, and other arm-building supplies. Brinn Day’s team brainstorms.

DAY: We just need something to go in between here—that like…

According to the PTLW website, by 2018, there is expected to be 1.2 million jobs in STEM fields that are unfilled, simply because not enough people will be qualified. Jansen explains that as people live longer and the pace of technology and industry advances increases, there is more need for healthcare workers, computer scientists, and engineers.

So as the students break, cut, shape, and tape objects together in an attempt to create a working arm, they are learning valuable skills that the Project Lead the Way creators hope they will eventually take out of the classroom and into the workforce.  

And that’s the plan, at least for Day, as she explains while unrolling duct tape.

“I want to do physical therapy, so I guess it’d be something that’s related to prosthetics, just because I’ll have to deal with patients who have prosthetic limbs, so I’ll have to understand how they move and stuff,” says Day.

Various challenges arise during the process. The plastic spoon grasping structure for Corey Johnson and Megan Good’s team is too heavy and can’t be controlled.

“How are we going to fix it,” asked Megan Good, a junior.

Despite some frustrations the teams work through it. When I inquire, fingers begin pointing to their award- winning teacher, Ms. Jansen.

“I’m in multiple sports--in these classes we do a lot of hands on learning, so it’s difficult to miss, so she’s really good to work with me to get caught up and figure out what I missed,” says Good.

But it’s more than that, Good continues, as she adjusts the plastic spoons at the end of her homemade prosthetic arm.

“She doesn’t just teach us. She actually cares about us in our normal life, and I think that helps us relate to her more. We just feel closer to her so we really feel like we can ask her questions.”

Her peers agree. Day adds,  “Yeah, and she’ll even stop during presentations and be like, ‘ok, are you guys understanding this?’ because we go through a lot of this fast, because there’s so much we have to get done.”

By now, the arm building time had run out, and the competition began.

“You have four minutes—you may begin,” says the classroom tutor.

As each group takes their turn, with some success and some failure. There’s a lot of encouragement, laughter, and learning.

“So let’s think about this. Why was she more successful,” asked Jansen.

The contest wraps up, and a winning group is decided. The grand prize is pizza.

Neither Day nor Good’s group is the winner—but no one seems too disappointed. It’s as though taking an interesting class with a teacher of Jansen’s credentials and the knowledge gained is a prize in and of itself.

According to junior Kennis Walencyck, “She’s the best teacher in the entire school, no joke.”