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How local tech-savvy kids made an arm for four-year-old

Kansas City Star

Four-year-old Sven Johnson has two things in abundance — giggles and energy. If you see him whiz by on his bike, chances are he’ll be going too fast for you to notice that his left arm stops at the elbow.

A few months ago, riding his bike was much more difficult until two students at Blue Valley’s Center for Advanced Professional Studies stepped in to help. In the fall, CAPS students made an artificial arm and hand combination for Sven, but he needed something else for riding the bike.

“We didn’t have enough control over the bike,” said Sven’s mom, Susan Johnson.

Seventeen-year-old Cody Kelemen of Olathe and 18-year-old Austin Crawford of Overland Park spent about a week designing an attachment that fits snugly onto the end of Sven’s arm and clamps firmly onto the bike’s handlebars.

“We got the original idea from Google Images, but we put our own CAPS spin on it,” Kelemen said.

The CAPS students’ creation is just one of several projects happening all over Johnson County where students from elementary to high school ages have noticed a problem someone with special needs is having and stepped up to fill the gap.

“We see a lot of students engaged in making things … (and that’s) reflective of the increase in engineering design in science classes. You see students working on real-life problems,” said David Evans, executive director of the National Science Teachers Association.

The projects here range from a specially designed spoon to some wheels for kids with limited mobility to Sven’s very special left arm.

When it came to designing an attachment for Sven’s bike, safety was an important consideration.

The end touching Sven’s arm has a flexible urethane cup. Susan Johnson had been rigging up a homemade version with a silicone cup threaded with Velcro on the end, but she’d have to replace the cup every time, because it would tear. With the new attachment, that’s not a problem anymore.

“When he falls, (the cup) just kind of pops off,” so Sven will be able to separate himself from the bike if necessary, Kelemen said.

They looked to GoPro clamps for inspiration on fastening the attachment to the handlebars.

“We wanted to make it kid-friendly, without much metal — nothing too sharp,” Crawford said.

Both the arm and bike attachment are orange plastic, printed from a 3-D printer. Keith Manbeck, engineering and manufacturing teacher at Blue Valley CAPS, said it took about 10 hours of printing to produce the attachment.

“The boys actually designed something more than I anticipated,” Manbeck said.

Crawford and Kelemen had actually never met Sven when they designed the attachment and only got to know him in the testing phase for the attachment.

“Originally, I wasn’t super excited about this project, because I didn’t know what I was doing, and then when he came by, it was really exciting to see the smile on his face and how he really liked it,” Kelemen said. “He wasn’t super excited either the first time he saw it, and then we made a couple of changes, and he really enjoyed it.”

Part of the challenge of making the design in the first place is that Sven is small, and most designs are intended for a bigger person.

With a few kinks worked out, Sven was hooked on the bike attachment.

“Everyone was amazed at how much better he was with the tool, and not even (with) any practice, just suddenly. I just thought we would fix the problem with the cup tearing,” Johnson said.

“He wants to ride,” she said. “Before, he’d get frustrated, and he wouldn’t ride for more than five minutes, if that, and you’d have to be luring him along. Now, he’ll go, and we’ll have to run. We’ll have to plan on taking a car to get him home, because he won’t want to come back.”

Johnson said she likes not only having the attachment for Sven but that Sven experiences this side of schoolwork.

“I love that he gets to see that this is school — learning how to problem-solve, getting to see older students helping younger students,” Johnson said.

Another group of CAPS students, 18-year-olds Ryan Foley of Stilwell, Matt Laverentz of Leawood and Lucas Hill and Matt Johnson of Overland Park, worked with Sven on the original arm/hand combination after Sven’s preschool teacher referred the family to CAPS last year.

Manbeck said that CAPS would continue to work with Sven as he gets older. This fall, they plan to adapt the design of the arm/hand better for how he uses it.

“For these kids to be able to design something where they know the person — there’s a different purpose. It’s a completely different project than just trying to make something,” Manbeck said.

Johnson said she hopes Sven might one day design his own arm.

Having the 3-D printed arm also allows Sven and his family to dip a toe into the large world of prosthetics without making a huge financial investment.

“It lets us explore it and explain it to Sven without being so far into it. A real prosthetic, it’s a commitment, and you don’t know how it’s going to go over, and the process (to get one) is lengthy,” Johnson said. “This is much more immediate, and you can see the result, and you don’t have to wait.”

When Kelemen and Crawford went online to research possible features for the bike attachment, they saw commercial versions selling for around $1,000. CAPS provided their design to the Johnson family at no charge.

“For me, it was probably one of the coolest things I’ve done in my life,” Crawford said. “It seems like he has a lot of confidence.”