Science & Technology

Function Follows Form: USU Honors Scholar Madison Patch Designs Prosthetic Hand

URCO grant recipient aims for affordability and function with 3D-printing technology.

By Mary-Ann Muffoletto |

USU URCO grant recipient Madison Patch, left, demonstrates a 3D-printed prosthetic hand she designed to Computer Science faculty mentor Mario Harper, right. The application period for the grant opens June 1. (Photo: M. Muffoletto)

When this writer first saw the carbon fiber running prosthesis Paralympic athlete and former Utah State University Aggie Marlon Shirley used to capture winning medals in the early 2000s, I was shocked and surprised. It didn’t look anything like a human foot. Rather, it featured a flat, paddle-shaped blade with a lower leg bent to mimic the hind leg of a cheetah. I had to adjust my cognitive dissonance and facepalm myself to the conclusion, “Oh, it’s built for FUNCTION, not to disguise a missing limb.”

USU undergraduate researcher Madison Patch thinks a lot about function — as well as aesthetics — in her efforts to create a functional prosthetic hand using 3D printing technology. She also thinks about affordability. Unlike elite athletes, who have sponsors to fund protheses costing thousands of dollars, Patch launched her research with a generous, albeit comparatively modest, $1,000 Undergraduate Research and Creative Opportunities (URCO) grant awarded by Utah State.

“3D printing makes things like a prosthetic hand easier to build and less costly,” says Patch, a human biology major. “We’re trying to simplify the design, but maximize human-like motion.”

The Fishers, Indiana native happened upon her Computer Science faculty mentor Mario Harper’s DIRECT robotics lab by chance, while making her first visit to Utah State with her family.

“I had no background in robotics or programming, but I was intrigued Dr. Harper’s robots and the kind of research he and his students were pursuing,” says the Honors student, who plans to study medicine. “Soon, I was volunteering to help out in his lab and got involved in research.”

Patch says she loves the problem-solving aspects of computer science and robotics.

“I took an anatomy class, and Dr. Harper and I began nerding out over thumb movement, opposition and how each finger can curl independently,” she says. “Designing a hand became a great way to understand human movement. Trying to mimic and build a prosthetic hand has really helped my studies, because it helps me understand why and how the human body moves as it does.”

Using an Arduino microcontroller, along with servo motors that can rotate parts of her 3D-printed hand, Patch has achieved a prosthesis that moves and completes tasks like gripping objects much like a human hand.

“I used fishing line to act as tendons that allow the hand’s fingers to pull forward and back,” she says.

Harper, assistant professor in USU’s Department of Computer Science, says he’s delighted to have a biologist among his lab’s students.

“We need researchers from all kinds of disciplines to advance our efforts in computer science,” he says.

Patch, who shared her research and prototype hand with state legislators on Utah’s Undergraduate Research on Utah’s Capitol Hill Day in January 2023, says the USU Honors Program, one of the reasons she chose Utah State, has been a definite plus.

“I love the environment in Honors housing, where you live with people who love to learn,” she says. “It’s been a great way to meet people and become part of a community.”

The next application window for Aggie undergrads to apply for an URCO grant opens June 1, 2023. Completed applications are due June 15, 2023. Learn more at the USU Office of Research website.


Mary-Ann Muffoletto
Public Relations Specialist
College of Science


Mario Harper
Assistant Professor
Computer Science


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