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Enabling the Future

"I'm taking [3D Printing& Additive Manufacturing] and other CSE classes so I can teach back in Honduras and give people what I'm learning here at the UMN."– Melvin Cruz, Honduras, College of Science and Engineering and Global UGRAD sponsored student

How one University of Minnesota student is giving a hand to those in need

Discovering His Mission

When Melvin Cruz found out he would be attending the University of Minnesota, his first response was in turning to Google.

Cruz is a sponsored student placed at the UMN through Global UGRAD, an exchange program funded by the U.S. Department of State and administered through World Learning, which allows students from around the world to study in the United States for a semester. Although Cruz had heard of the state of Minnesota before, the Honduras native was unfamiliar with the University. His search yielded some surprising results.

"I Googled it and it was this huge university, and I said, "No, this can't be possible!" Cruz remembers. "I was totally excited about coming here."

As Cruz continued his search, he discovered the University was more than simply large; it was research-based. This realization prompted Melvin to find a research project of his own.

"I told myself, I can't go to the University of Minnesota without having a project. So I started looking at projects I could engage with," he said.

Cruz didn't have to look far to find a topic he was interested in. In fact, his inspiration came from one of his classmates in Honduras. Cruz's classmate was similar to him in almost every way: same grade level, same focus on electrical engineering, same good grades. The only difference was that his classmate was born without a hand.

Cruz once again turned to social media as he remembered a project he had seen online called Enabling the Future, or e-NABLE for short. e-NABLE is an online community that provides open-source designs and instructions that allow individuals to create 3D-printed hands for those in need. While traditional prosthetics can cost thousands of dollars, a hand built using e-NABLE instructions costs around $70, making it accessible for those who can't afford healthcare. As Cruz explored the program, he was surprised to find that there wasn't an e-NABLE community in Honduras-- or its three neighboring countries.

"How come these projects are so good for people in developing countries, but aren't having any type of success here?" Cruz wondered. He felt he had his work cut out for him.

"I started talking to people about my idea and what I was planning to do. 3D printing within [Honduras] is a totally new area. I came to America with some stuff set up, some connections and some people that were really a key piece in the project, but I was missing the masterpiece that was the 3D printer."

Finding Opportunity

Upon his arrival to the University in January 2016, Cruz began a full course load in the College of Science and Engineering, which included classes in U.S. history, renewable energy, electronics and circuits, and 3D printing. The latter yielded the opportunity he was looking for.

MM 3305: 3D Printing and Additive Manufacturing, which teaches the fundamentals of 3D printing technology, quickly became the missing link in Cruz's quest to make his e-NABLE project a reality. Course instructor Derek Mathers presented an opportunity for students to purchase their own printers at a discount by using a group rate and purchasing in bulk. Although the discount brought the cost down from $500 per printer to only $300, Cruz still worried about funding the project. He considered putting his scholarship stipend money towards the expense, but in the end, social media came to the rescue once more.

3D Printer for Free Posthetics

Cruz created a GoFundMe page where he described in both English and Spanish how funds raised will create free hands for children in Honduras born with disabilities. Cruz's original hope was that his page would help offset the cost of the printer, but he never expected the outcome he got. One Facebook post, two days, and fifteen donations later, Cruz had raised enough money.

After securing his funds, Cruz turned his attention to the next step of his project: gaining the knowledge he needed to make e-NABLE a success in Honduras. Through his full course load, involvement in student groups, and networking opportunities, Cruz worked to gain the resources necessary in bringing e-NABLE to his home country, where he hopes the program's benefits will be twofold, both in creating hands for those in need and starting a chain reaction of learning and advancement.

"I'm taking [MM3305] and other classes so I can go teach back in my country, to give to people what I'm learning here," Cruz said. "My country is many years behind in technology and bringing these technologies that are emerging in the United States to third world countries cuts a huge gap in time. The whole other principal of the project is to bring education and progress within technology, to bring the development we're lacking right now."

3D Printer for Free Posthetics

Creating Connections

Ask Cruz one of the biggest benefits of coming to the University of Minnesota, and he will undoubtedly answer the people.

Cruz wasted no time making connections across campus, adding classmates, professors, and mentors to his network. There's Mathers, whose entrepreneurship and vision have helped Cruz shape his vision for e-NABLE; his circuits professor who has a PhD from MIT ("her perspective was totally useful for me"); his roommates and friends in the dorm who he describes as "so cool"; and the renewable energies professor who is the author of the class textbook.

Another connection Cruz made during his time on campus, Cruz discovered a local group of e-Nable community members in the UMN student group Engineering World Health. The group's mission of using biomedical engineering to deliver healthcare solutions in developing countries aligned with Cruz's own beliefs, as did the group's passion for 3D printing.

While working with the group, Cruz was able to watch as a 3D hand was printed, his first time seeing the process in person. Throughout the semester, he helped the group with the creation of other hands. This work earned Cruz and Engineering World Health press in the Minnesota area, with an article in the Minnesota Daily and a video on 5 Eyewitness News.

"It was quite exciting. It was really nice to share with other people what we were looking for and what we were doing," Cruz said.

Cruz worked tirelessly to spread the news on his project, talking to numerous influencers and organizations while on campus. Notably, Cruz had the chance to sit down with e-Nable board of directors treasurer Andy Christensen where they discussed the future of the project and how to further progress Cruz's vision, and he talked with members of the Minnesota branch of Rotary International about how e-Nable could provide assistance in the group's fight to eradicate polio by providing assistance to those with side effects from the disease, such as muscular atrophy. Cruz also participated in Culture Corps, ISSS's program that helps international students share their unique perspectives with the UMN community inside and outside of the classroom, where he did presentations on 3D printing and forest conservation and spoke at the UMN's Department of Spanish & Portuguese Studies, Colleges in the Schools Field Day.

"One of the biggest opportunities this University has given to me was meeting with people I never thought I was going to meet," Cruz said.

Not every part of Cruz's project has gone off without a hitch, however.

While on campus, Cruz worked to create a proposal for the U.S. Department of State's Alumni Engagement Innovation Fund (AEIF), which provides current and past exchange participants with grants to use on service projects they create. Cruz felt the $25,000 award would be just the boost his project needed, but in order to meet proposal requirements, he had to find a team of four other International Exchange Alumni. After searching, Cruz solidified a team of and two Honduran biomedical engineers and two other Honduran UGRAD students spending the semester at different U.S. schools. He was ready to apply.

In May, the Alumni Engagement Innovation Fund (AEIF) announced 61 winners from the over 800 proposals received. Cruz's project was not among them. Despite not winning the award; however, Cruz stayed positive, especially after having grown his project from a one-man operation to a team of likeminded individuals eager to develop his vision into a reality.

"I saw with my own eyes that when one door closes, two others open," Cruz said.

Looking Forward

Although he described his time at the University as one of the best experiences of his life, Cruz's truest passion is in sharing what he's learned with those in Honduras.

"Most people have this idea that [Honduras] is kind of messed up; that there is no work and opportunities are hard to get, but I don't see it that way," Cruz said. "I really appreciate all of the experience [I gained] here. Now my biggest excitement is going back to my country and sharing it with others."

Since he returned home at the end of spring semester, Cruz and his team have been working on just that. They started by deciding on a name for the work they are doing within the e-NABLE community, choosing Guala, which translates to 'hands' in the now-extinct Lencan language that is native to Honduras. Next came the logo and Facebook page. Now Cruz's main focus is on sharing his project with those around him.

"I didn't share anything with my university back home while I was in the United States. I wanted to get everything set up and to a point where I could tell them 'this is the project and this is what we are doing,'" Cruz explained. "I sat down with [university members] last week and they were really surprised when I told them that I got into the news and everything I was doing. They have really shown support. I have had a lot of meetings with people in the university and they're looking for funds to help the project."

3D Plastic hand

As Cruz works to spread the word about Guala, he has gotten help from friends who share a passion for his project. One of those friends is classmate Marco Mejia, the very classmate who inspired Cruz's project back when the University of Minnesota was nothing but a Google search result and 3D printing was nothing more than the contents of a video he'd seen online. This June, Mejia will be the recipient of Guala's first hand. The tension-controlled plastic hand is more than just a milestone for Guala, but also for Mejia who has never owned prosthesis. Cruz feels this is just the beginning.

"[Guala] is not only going to give hands to people, but also the same access that other people in the world have to development, research, and technology. Everybody deserves this."

As Cruz looks forward to the future of Guala, he also reflects on where his project began.

"The opportunities the University has opened to me within access to technology, access to things that are actually being done in the world, and to meet people who can help me, were really great," Melvin said. "I think you can define it as life-changing."

Date Published: June 2016

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