Alabama High School Students Drive Innovation

Students use Corolla motor mounts to build inexpensive leg prostheses for amputees

May 02, 2018

Field Trip -- Calera High School students traveled to Honduras in 2014 to fit local amputees with the Corolla motor mount leg prosthetic.

If you spend any time talking to Brian Copes, two things become quickly apparent.

First, the Alabama high school teacher loves his job. Second, you definitely shouldn’t take his class if you want an easy A.

Copes has spent 13 years teaching engineering in Alabama middle and high schools. His assignments go far beyond typical homework, term papers or class projects. Each semester, he pushes his students to dream big and accomplish what may seem out of their reach. Impossible, even. They’ve designed and built utility vehicles, electric cars and a hydroelectric power plant.

Sometimes those students find inspiration in an unlikely place. Like a 1989 Corolla.

“Back in 2011, I challenged the students to go and invent an inexpensive prosthetic,” Copes says. “We happened to have a Toyota Corolla we were tearing apart for another project, and the students came across a motor mount. They noticed it had a hole in the middle. It had some rubber in it, so it had cushion. They got to work, and used that motor mount to build artificial knee and ankle joints.”

A good idea? Sure. Limb prostheses can cost thousands of dollars, and are designed to be replaced every few years. But a prosthetic built from easy-to-find Corolla car parts could be a game changer.

“The Corolla is one of the most popular cars in the world,” Copes says. “The parts are easy to find and don’t cost a lot.”

Life Lessons -- Alabama teacher Brian Copes, in front of a utility vehicle his students designed in an engineering class.

The prototype Copes’ students designed only cost about $40. But would it work? An artificial limb specialist stopped by the classroom to get a look.

“He was floored,” Copes says. “He said, ‘Man, I think that will do the job.’”

The specialist took the prototype to Honduras, where there’s a tremendous need for inexpensive prosthetics, and tested it on a local amputee. Meanwhile, Copes and his students got busy making more. And in the spirit of kaizen, Copes challenged his next class of students to make an even better model – lighter, leaner, and at a lower cost.

When Toyota learned about the project, the company stepped in to help, donating several motor mounts to help with production, and cash to help send Copes and his students to Honduras. In 2012, the class traveled there and fitted 14 Honduran amputees with the Corolla prostheses.  

“In a place like Honduras, when a person loses a leg, a lot of times they lose their livelihood, too,” Copes says. “But a new, inexpensive prosthetic leg can give these people hope, and that’s one of the big reasons why I’m doing it.”

Copes and his students continue to produce prostheses, and have built 21 so far. Right now, they’re looking for an investor to kickstart production on a wider scale. Meanwhile, Copes says he’s proud of his students for doing what they can to change the world beyond their classroom.

“I try to teach the kids to look for needs out there in the community. I want them to use their time and talents to help others and make this world a better place.” 

By Kristen Orsborn

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