Real-World Learning that Makes a Difference

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Often students question how what they learn in the classroom has transferable, real-world applications. Grasping the American Civil War, human evolution, and the quadratic formula may be important, but by and large, educators do a poor job of convincing anybody, much less kids, that such knowledge is crucial not only for future success, but also for the here and now.

More still, teachers need to understand that today’s students live in an era of instant gratification, and that this reality isn’t all bad. Students don’t want to wait to make a difference tomorrow; they want to take what they’ve learned and make a difference now. They are hungry to make a positive difference, a prospect made all the more possible by emerging technologies. We should let them try.

Along those lines, I recently learned of such a real-world, difference-making project spearheaded by Rich Lehrer, a middle school science teacher at Brookwood School in Manchester, Massachusetts. Lehrer’s son, Max, 3, was born with symbrachydctyly, a congenital abnormality which prevented fingers from developing on his right hand.

About a year ago, Lehrer saw a Facebook post about Richard Van As, a South African who, after losing several fingers in a bad carpentry accident, consulted with American designer Ivan Owen to construct his own prosthetic, the “Robohand,” which returned much of his hand’s original function.

In Owen’s TEDx Talk, which he gave in January, he explains how consumer-level 3D-printing allows independent designers a cost-effective means to quickly test out ideas in the real world.  “In some applications–and mechanical fingers for children is just one example–it’s even possible for these designs to be ready for use in the real world right after coming off of the printer,” he says. “As a tool for open source development, this makes it possible for people from a very wide range of backgrounds and experience-levels to collaborate with one another.”

Owen’s words hit home with me. I don’t teach science, and I’m only minimally aware of how to use a 3D printer. Too often, though, I see and hear of students creating trinkets and jewelry, and I question the value, or what real difference it makes, when the heated plastic, emanating from the 3D printer, takes shape. But Van As and Owen show how students can make a meaningful and lasting difference, almost immediately, with 3D printing.

Lehrer connected with Van As, wanting to make a similar hand for Max, who had undergone a major operation, in which doctors moved one of his metacarpals to afford a bit better grasp. Lehrer tells me that since then, he and his wife had decided to hold off on any other intervention. But all of that changed when Lehrer watched this video.

Van As offered to custom-build Max’s Robohand, but Lehrer thought to do it himself. Last summer, he came up with the idea of sponsoring a school club to help with that endeavor. One group would find a 3D-printer to create the most intricate parts, like the fingers and knuckles. Another group would track down thermoplastic, to serve as a splint and hold the hand in place. A third group would locate tools, latex rubber, and orthodontic elastics, listed in the Robohand assembly manual provided by Van As.

As for the 3D-printer, each year several Brockwood graduates attend The Governor’s Academy, a nearby school in Byfield, Mass, where senior Arjun Bhatnager oversees use of the machine. Lehrer connected with Bhatnagar, who showed immediate excitement about getting involved. “The work I’m doing will have a direct impact on someone,” Bhatnager says. “It feels really good to really help a child with the work I was trying to do . . . . It was just awesome, the whole idea of something I worked on for hours will now benefit a child who can actually pick up things and do stuff with it.”

I’m equally intrigued by Bhatnager’s relationship with Lehrer, and how the two represent the best of what can come from students and teachers working together. Bhatnager speaks glowingly of Lehrer, a “really sunny guy” who is always approachable. For his part, Lehrer describes Bhatnager’s as “inspiring,” and says working with a student like him was a “home run.”

“We each had knowledge that one of us knew, and we wanted to share and bring this project to fruition in the end,” Bhatnager says, noting that he considers Lehrer more his partner than just another teacher. “At the same time, he was willing to let a student take charge of something that he had no idea of, and show him and . . . basically the whole school, what a student can do. He can create a curriculum, create an agenda, create a program, and start some things of his own,” Bhatnager tells me.

As I listen to Bhatnager, I find validation of an article I wrote this fall with Preston Michelson, a now-former student, for Independent Teacher Magazine: “In the classroom, no longer are adults the only source of knowledge—and often they aren’t even the best,” we write in A Tale of Two Teachers. “Now more than ever, kids are taking learning into their own hands. The best teachers embrace this development and don’t feel threatened by students who may know more than they do. Instead, they revel in a changing dynamic, in which students and teachers learn together to improve their collective understanding and mastery of relevant subjects and skills.”

Brockwood and Governor’s are independent schools, and Bhatnager also got me thinking of my trip last week to Washington, D.C., where along with some 20 of the nation’s top innovators, educators, and change-agents, I participated in an Educational Technology and Blended Learning Summit, hosted by the National Association of Independent Schools. One key consensus called for more independent schools working together, not against each other. That includes sharing not only resources, like the 3D-printer, but also talented and motivated teachers, like Lehrer, who can and should continue to reach students beyond the confines of his daily workplace.

Speaking of which, Lehrer is grateful for deciding to build the Robohand with students. “There was always this sense that it wouldn’t work out, or we wouldn’t be able to do it,” he says. “When all of a sudden we had all the stuff there, that realization on their part and my part that ‘Oh, my God, we are literally going to be able to build my son this little, prosthetic hand.’ It was this moment in teaching . . . I’ve never had anything like it.”

Here’s hoping more teachers follow in Lehrer’s footsteps.



As a coach, history and journalism teacher at Brimmer and May, a wonderful independent school in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts, I have the absolute best job in the world. I am thrilled to get up every morning to engage with interesting young people, and I'm equally fortunate to have such amazing colleagues and mentors. As the founder of Spin Education, I encourage you to check-in frequently and submit posts and lessons—all in an effort to better our practice as teachers.

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