MANCHESTER-BY-THE-SEA — In a science classroom at the Brookwood School, eighth-graders excitedly compare their work under the watchful eye of teacher Rich Lehrer.
They sift through bungee cords, zip-ties, and Velcro straps. In the hallway outside, a 3-D printer whirs away, creating webs of plastic that slowly begin to build a pattern of joints and fingers, forms born from a computer file.
Slowly, as the printer continues to spit out its bounty, the students work at attaching fingers to a palm, and the object of their exercise begins to take shape — a plastic hand.
“I think we all like the creative aspect,’’ said student Delaney Clark, 14, of Newburyport, “and doing something with our hands.”
But the exercise undertaken by Clark and 11 others at the private day school, it turns out, is only partially complete: Over the next year, they hope to share their newfound knowledge with a class on the other side of the world — or to be precise, 6,859 miles distant, in Kigali, Rwanda.
Both the unique classroom project and its African connection trace to Lehrer, 53, who has taught at Brookwood since 2007. On a fellowship trip to Rwanda in 2011, he became aware of the Forum for African Women Educationalists, a group active in 33 countries in sub-Saharan Africa that seeks to empower girls and women and to eliminate gender disparities in education.
Two years after that, he came across a video about a 3-D printed prosthetic hand produced by South African Richard Van As, who had lost fingers in a carpentry accident, and Ivan Owen, a mechanical special effects artist based in Washington state. Van As and Owen collaborated to make such a hand for Van As, sharing their work online for use by anyone with access to a 3-D printer.
Lehrer had a very personal reason to be intrigued: His then-3-year-old son, Max, suffered from symbrachydactyly, which prevented fingers from developing on his right hand. Lehrer reached out to Van As.
“Just talking it through,” recalled Lehrer, “I thought ‘Oh my God, I want to do this myself and with my eighth-graders.’ ”
He pitched the idea as a yearlong club at Brookwood. His first group of students two years ago was given a mission: build a functional hand for Max.
“[This] laid the groundwork for my own mind-set,” Lehrer said. “Just having done some of that authentic work, if I had come across this five years before, I don’t know if I could’ve taken that leap to have my kids work with my 3-year-old son.”
The first attempt produced a hand that was not a good match for his son, but the seed had been planted.
“After the project,’’ said Lehrer, “we had 3-D printers donated to our school, and it made it very clear the importance of this technology. For me, it was life-changing.
“I would say that anytime kids work on things that have tangible real-life applications and value,’’ he continued, “it becomes a very real and present thing in their life.’’
He said the work intensely engages the students. “The kids are super-excited about being involved in something ... that has a real need for someone around the world.”
Fourteen-year-old Sky Cole of Beverly is certainly on board.
“I was interested in being part of something bigger,’’ she said. “It’s doing something useful, but having fun at the same time. It was amazing to see how kids like us could build something that could help people.”
Next up: getting both the technology and the know-how to their African partners. Earlier this month, the Brookwood students held their first Skype session with Rwandan teachers Tonny Kasinja and Patrick Mujuni, who will be creating a club similar to Lehrer’s for girls in Kigali.
The plan now is to arrange another Skype session in the next several weeks, during which students will begin the collaborative building.
“I think it’s great to connect with other schools in general,’’ said Nils Skaane, 14, of Marblehead, “but being able to connect with a school that is not as fortunate to have a 3-D printer is awesome. It’s great to be able to teach them how to build these hands and provide them to those who need them. Seeing it work in real life and people benefiting from it really drives us.”
Lehrer called the 3-D printed hands “humanitarian engineering.”
“I think for years the issue was science education seemed far off and . . . removed from kids’ real lives, which couldn’t be farther from the truth,” he said. “I think this project makes it very obvious for them that even eighth-graders can make something that will change someone’s life.”Alexandra Malloy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.