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NPC engineering student leads custom prosthetics project

Photo courtesy of National Park College

Hot Springs, Arkansas –  Inspired by his own struggles with expensive and poor fitting prosthetics, National Park College (NPC) Engineering student, Ben Scarbrough hopes to use his degree to design affordable, custom prosthetics and disability aids. He was born with campomelic dysplasia, a rare disorder that affects the skeletal system. He uses prosthetic legs for mobility but says quality prosthetics are too costly for most people.

“They are so expensive, and I don’t think they should be that expensive. Because of my experience with prosthetics, I believe I can probably make them cheaper and be able to pass that on to people so they can have the newer technology,” Scarbrough said. He explained that prosthetics with sensors and ankle movement can cost more than $100,000. “I believe I could build that at a cheaper rate so people who aren’t exactly wealthy could still be able to enjoy that.”

Scarbrough completed the Industrial Technology program as part of his degree path. The certificate requires completion of a welding course. “Because my natural arms are shorter than average, I would need to have prosthetics to be able to complete the class. My insurance only offers one set of prosthetics every three years, and I am in need of legs as well, as mine are breaking down,” he said.

Scarbrough is currently working with a team of peers to design custom prosthetic arms that will allow him to participate in welding classes. He took the initiative to seek design input from staff at the Innovative Technologies Center to refine his design and has inquired about a grant for help funding the prototype. He worked with Industrial Technology instructor Bill Frueck who advised the group and documented their work. Frueck helped to clarify the mechanics needed to make the prosthetic electrically functional. “I thought this would be a valuable project for my fellow engineering students to assist me with as it would provide hands-on experience,” said Scarbrough. The team included computer programming student Jordan Terry, computer engineering student Mark McCorkle, industrial technology student Leslie Slife, electrical engineering student Jason Redfield, and mechanical engineering student David Silk.

“He has built, with his outgoing personality, a team of resources supporting his project. Many engineering students choose the profession due to its high demand, high wage outcome. Ben is designing an advanced prosthetic at an affordable price, and that is a level of altruism that many beginning engineering students take years to develop,” said professor Darlene Gentles.

“Since I have worn prosthetics my entire life, I am familiar with how the mechanics work. I had an I-Limb hand, which is a hand that provides an articulation of each finger. This spurred the idea of creating my own set of arms to be able to complete the welding class,” added Scarbrough.

Scarbrough and his team used basic hand tools, 3D printers, a soldering iron, Arduino circuitry, and stepper motors to build the prototype. Unfortunately, due to COVID-19, all progress on the project ceased at the testing phase. The team is still testing motors to identify a solution that will hold the right amount of torque, gear patterns, circuitry, and programming.

Scarbrough was selected to receive the Elisabeth Wagner Math and Science Scholarship last semester. He said his college experience overall has been very positive and has helped to boost his confidence to further his education. He said that since he began classes, it has “re-sparked [his] passion” for learning. “I love the teachers. They have all been very helpful and they all seem to really care about my success.” After graduation, he plans to transfer to the University of Arkansas Little Rock to complete his bachelor’s degree. 

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