Members of the Staples High School e-Nable Club include, from left, Max Saperstein, Penelope Eisenberger, Gavin Gravelle, Ethen Perry and Sebastian Rodriguez. / Contributed photos
Staples students Rohan Sareen and Jacob Rybchin using a 3D printing device to fashion prosthetic hands.

By Frank Szivos

WESTPORT — Call Jacob Rybchin, a senior at Staples High School this fall, a bit nerdy, and he’s fine with that.

He’s one of about 30 members of the Staples e-Nable Club, helping to create 3D prosthetic hands for the disabled.

“I guess I’ve thought of myself as a little nerdy, but I love the idea of envisioning something in my mind and creating it, especially if it has a practical use,” he says.

Rybchin, one of the founding members of the club two years ago, said the goal is to provide a prosthetic hand at no charge to at least three disabled people in 2025. At the moment, the club is searching for a needy person, probably a child from southern Connecticut.

The Staples club joined the e-Nable organization, which sponsors international projects to help the disabled. The organization is an online global community of “digital humanitarian” volunteers utilizing 3D printers to build prosthetic devices for people in need. There are about 40,000 e-Nable volunteers in more than 100 countries, creating hands and arms for an estimated 15,000 recipients. 

In Connecticut, the Staples club is only one of two, the other at Yale University. Staples e-Nable club has conferred with Yale students for advice about pursuing their projects.

Working on building prosthetics fits perfectly with Rybchin’s career goal to become an engineer. 

“Learning 3D printing and building prosthetics fits perfectly into my future plans,” he says. “I will take an engineering course this summer at Berlin University in Germany.”

The idea to form a 3D club grew out of a Creative Technology and Solutions course that club founders, Rybchin, Preston Siroka and Hugo Jacques (all rising seniors), had taken as sophomores. 

The classmates were inspired to put their knowledge of 3D printing  to work. They approached their teacher Humphrey Wong to form a club and join the international digital volunteer organization.

Learning more about building 3D prosthetic hands also struck home for Sebastian Rodriguez, a club founder and rising senior, who plans to study pre-med in college and follow in his father’s footsteps, a pediatrician at Yale New Haven Hospital.

“I had never done 3D printing before. It really intrigued me,” Rodriguez said. “I enjoy solving real-world problems.”

Rodriguez pointed out that the 3D hand could help a recipient be more independent in daily life, but also increase self-confidence, enabling a more active life in the community.

“The prosthetic devices usually go to children, but we would be happy to give one to anyone who needs it,” he says. “We’re getting close to finding a client.”

Rodriguez credits Wong for his mentorship and inspiring club members to work hard to reach the club goal of making a difference in the lives of people who need support.

Helping with the e-Nable mission to lend a hand to help others are, from left, Lukas Senatore, Asher Feldman, Preston Siroka and Zach Newshel.

Wong applauds his students for their diligence and determination. It takes hours of trial and error to build a prosthetic that is functional. Being a part of Staples e-Nable Club is not a causal commitment.

“All the kids in the club are outstanding,” Wong said. “The object of the original Creative Technology course was to learn 3D printing, but also be active in the community.”

The e-Nable Club is certainly working toward that goal. Building a 3D hand is not easy. The students must print out the hands from special plastic materials that can take as long as 24 hours to complete. From there, after the material cools, club members cut and assemble the plastic parts and connect wires built to a recipient’s individual measurements that also will be personalized in design. 

“If a client wants the hand to have a super-hero design, we can do that, too,” Rybchin said.

While the prosthetic hand will certainly be useful, it is not the same as a high-tech, robotic model seen in movies, such as “Robo Cop” and “Terminator.” It connects to a limb and is functional enough to grasp a glass or open a door — a big deal for a person with a disability. When the club identifies a particular client, members must customize the device with specific measurements.

“The hand is not FDA-approved stuff,” Wong said. “It’s free and it’s useful, especially for someone who can’t afford a prosthetic.”

Building the prosthetic hand is only part of what club members do. For example, Rybchin is involved in fundraising and promoting the club’s goal. 

The Staple e-Nable Club has created a GoFundMe page to promote itself and fundraise to cover the cost of materials as well as to purchase and maintain the club’s 3D printers. To date, club has raised more than $3,700, aiming to reach a $5,000 goal. Wong estimates that it cost approximately $30 to build one hand and many hours of labor.

The three founding members’ hope to keep the club thriving after they graduate in 2025. They plan to continue to recruit underclassmen to build interest in 3D printing of prosthetic devices and any future projects.

“Because we graduate next year, we’re concerned about the interest in the club,” Rodriguez said. “It takes a lot of work to keep it going for the long-term future.”

No doubt building a 3D prosthetic will look good on a student’s college application. But Rodriguez said a reason for founding the club extends beyond building an attractive resume for college. The founders are serious about learning more about 3D printing and extending a 3D hand to someone in need.

“We’re serious about learning and helping others,” Rodriguez said. “Sure, it looks good on a college application, but we’ve put a lot of work into this club and want to see it through until we have produced a prosthetic hand that will change someone’s life.”

Frank Szivos is a freelance writer.