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Elementary school students help turtle zoom around again with 3D-printed wheels

turtle gets 3d printed wheels.png
Posted at 1:50 PM, May 20, 2022

PAPILLION, Neb. — A tortoise is one step closer to being back on its feet, all with the help of local elementary school students and their 3D printer.

Shelly the tortoise has been struggling for about a year. She hadn't been walking, and was egg-bound with five eggs to take care of.

But she's on the sunnyside up now.

"She's got an even better life now because of the kids here at Prairie Queen," said Jillian Lenz of Wildlife Encounters in Nebraska.

Wildlife Encounters rescued Shelly about five years ago and made a Facebook post looking for help in order to create a three-dimensional, functional wheel system to give her the necessary support to walk around.

"No one has really made a wheel system for a tortoise, so we didn't really have an idea to go off of. We just kind of knew this was something that could work,” said Lenz.

That’s when Prairie Queen Elementary's 3D printing club answered the call.

For third-grader Parker McCauley, answering the call was simple: "so she can be like any other tortoise."

The third through sixth-grade students first met Shelly in February and began brainstorming ideas.

"We printed things that we knew were not going to work, but we wanted them to see that and make changes when they had it in their hands,” said Laura Smith, a teacher/ instructor who oversaw the club’s project. “The kids are so good at it. We're like, 'here's the software, do it,' and they can figure it out. They're all so invested and technologically capable."

After only a couple of test runs, they quickly realized the project would be full of trial and error. But the students appropriately adopted a "slow and steady wins the race" mindset for the project to figure out what would work the best.

"We couldn't have Shelly come every meeting,” said Stacey Muller, another teacher/instructor who supervised the student project. “It was one of those, ‘OK, we need to be patient. We need to use the cardboard cutout of Shelly.’ "

The students were focused on helping their reptilian friend.

"Our kids live in a world of instant gratification with gaming and all kinds of technology — things that get that reward right away,” said Smith. “So, this was a long journey that they usually don't encounter in their day-to-day activities."

Thursday morning was the final test run, and evident progress has been made.

"We're so excited with what has been created today and just to see the kids process throughout it, and the way their brain kind of works to solve this problem — how we get a tortoise to walk again. It's just been a really, really cool experience," said Lenz.

A project that has been mutually beneficial for Shelly and the kids.

"It's one thing to create doorstops and marker holders, but to have something that went an entire semester is huge for elementary students," said Muller.

"They're going to see things differently and have more patience and grace and understanding," Smith said.

"It's cool because we're helping a tortoise,” McCauley said. “Not everyone gets the chance to do that."

This story was first reported by Zach Williamson at KMTVin Omaha, Nebraska.