In what the Girl Scouts of the USA said may be its first patent-worthy project, a group of Girl Scouts from Ames, Iowa, developed a prosthetic hand device to help a 3-year-old toddler without fingers write. The device not only won the group the $20,000 FIRST LEGO League Global Innovation Award from the X Prize Foundation last month, it scored the scouts a provisional patent.
"I thought it was awesome," said Zoe Groat, 12, a sixth-grade member of the team called the Flying Monkeys. "It was really exciting to know that someone was able to use something we made."
Along with five other girls aged 11- to 13-years-old, Groat entered the worldwide FIRST LEGO League science and engineering challenge that, this past year, focused on robotics applied to medical issues.
They'd already decided to work on hand and arm prosthetics when Melissa Murray, one of the scouts' mothers and co-coach of the team, met Dale Fairchild on a Yahoo Group for families affected by congenital limb differences. (Murray's daughter, one of the Flying Monkeys, uses an adaptive device for a hand difference.)
Fairchild's 3-year-old daughter Danielle, born with symbrachydactyly, had a thumb and palm but no fingers on her right hand. Once the Flying Monkeys learned about Danielle, they decided to dedicate their project to helping her.
Between the fall of 2010 and this spring, the girls spent at least 180 hours on the project, Murray said. They met with prosthetics manufacturers and doctors to research the project. Once they had Danielle's measurements, they tried using all kinds of materials found in crafts shops and medical specialty stores to create the most helpful device.
Girl Scouts' Coach: Project Demonstrates the Power of Engineering
Finally, they settled on an invention made from moldable plastic (like that used by occupational therapists), a pencil grip and Velcro (to help fasten the device to Danielle's hand). In total, the device cost less than $50 to make, Murray said.
"The kids all learned – and they will tell you – that it is a trial and error process and you learn a lot from your mistakes," Murray said.
The team recently received a provisional patent for their device and will use the prize money to file for a utility patent, Murray. It could take up to three years to secure the final patent but Murray said the scouts "would love to see it go as far as they can go."
"It is showing them a real-life thing they can do," she said. "It is demonstrating the power that engineering does have."
And, for Danielle, the device has helped opened up a new range of possibilities.
"The girls' device is something that she could not have gotten elsewhere and it has the potential to help her in other ways as well as help other children and adults," said Fairchild.
Danielle is not a candidate for a prosthetic hand, Fairchild said, but she has learned that she can write with the device, and it has shown her that she can flex her palm to grasp more.
"The first time she used it she said, 'I can write!'" Fairchild said. "It was pretty neat."
Though this project may sound like a departure from traditional Girl Scout activities like arts and crafts and museum field trips, Girl Scouts officers say science and technology have always been a part of the organization's culture.
Back when the Girl Scouts got its start in the early 1900s, it already boasted an electrician badge and an aviator badge, per the direction of its founder Juliette Gordon Low -- herself an aviator and an environmentalist, said Kate Pickles the program project manager for the Girl Scouts' STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) program.
"We've always been pushing the ideas of what people believe the roles of women should be," Pickles said.
Across the country, the Girl Scouts is sponsoring 250 teams like the Flying Monkeys, who are working on all kinds of technology challenges, from a back-up camera for a girl in a wheelchair to a GPS system for the blind.
But the Flying Monkeys' prosthetic hand device is particularly notable, Pickles said.
"This is just one way to get them excited about science and show them that they can make a difference in these files and have a meaningful impact," she said. "They've really pushed the envelope of what any of us thought they might come up with."