Watts middle school students build prosthetic, win national engineering design competition

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Four middle school students from Watts' Markham Middle school recently won a national engineering design competition —for  building a low-cost prosthetic arm.

The magnet students are part of the MESA program, which stands for Mathematics Engineering Science Achievement.

Two of the winners, Jacqueline Sanchez and Julio Romero, spoke with KPCC, along with their teacher Philip Gerlach, about how they came up with the idea, and about their victory.

The challenge: Build a prosthetic arm on the cheap

The rules of the competition required the students to build the prosthetic arm for less than 40 bucks.

“So we decided to go to Wal-Mart," said Sanchez. "Go to the 99-cents store and then buy stuff — that’s very efficient.”

In the end, the students ended up spending $13.36 on supplies.

“We bought two hand grabbers. We bought a cup and suspenders,” said Romero.

Tinkering with the design

The students built four prototypes before they got the arm to work.

“At first we used a back brace and we connected the suspenders to them,” explained Romero, "but then we realized the suspenders were not needed. We could just wrap it around our neck and arm.”

Once they got the basics figured out, the arm was ready to compete.

“The arm had to be able to pick up objects and put them into a crate and we had to be able to throw balls into buckets," said Romero.

Getting to the nationals

Getting to the national completion was a challenge for the students. Particularly at the state level, where they had to compete against California schools with fancier, more advanced prosthetic arms.

“[The state competition] was very difficult especially because there was one team from Fresno. Theirs could pick up objects, too,” said Sanchez.

The Fresno team had a wooden prosthetic arm. In the end, it was no match for Markham Middle School’s lightweight plastic design.

“I thought it was a dream," recalled Sanchez about the moment the team won. “I didn’t feel anything. But then when I got home, I was yelling, screaming, ‘We did it! We did it! We did it!'"

The competition doesn't offer cash to its winners, but they did come home with a trophy.

“I had a feeling of accomplishment. It was a lot of hard work,” said Romero. “And knowing that it was enough to compete at the national level, made me feel that it was worthwhile.”

And of course, their teacher is extremely proud of them, too.

“These kids are amazing,” said Gerlach. “I think it shows that kids everywhere can be successful.” 

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