12-year-old drummer born with no hands receives life-changing gift from Tennessee Tech engineering students

These days, Tennessee middle school student Aubrey Sauvie, 12, who was born with no hands, says she can bang on her snare drum as hard or fast as she wants.

It’s all thanks to a generous gift from a group of college engineering students who created a custom pair of 3D-printed hands for the budding young musician.

Ten Tennessee Technological University students made the special prosthetics as part of a dynamics of machinery class during spring semester for Aubrey, who was born as a triple congenital amputee.

She has no arms below her elbows and a partially amputated left foot, her mother, Jennifer Sauvie, told CNN.

The new prosthetics have made a world of a difference for Aubrey, who took up drumming over the past school year after being influenced by her older sister, who plays percussion.

“Before I had them, I was having to put the drumsticks and stuff in my sleeves and just hold them in the crease in my elbow, so it would slip out over time depending on how hard I had to play or how fast,” said Aubrey, who lives in Murfreesboro, Tennessee. “But with these …  they will stay stable and stay intact.”

Her band director knew of a program at Tennessee Tech called Tech Engineering for Kids and reached out to Stephen Canfield, a mechanical engineering professor who oversees the program.

Tech Engineering for Kids, which is run through Canfield’s junior-level engineering course, involves students working in teams to design a form of custom assistive technology for a child with special needs in the Middle Tennessee region.

“I have a network of medical professionals, care coordinators, therapists and the like that work with children with special needs in our region, and they’ll help me identify a child and family with a need,” Canfield told CNN.

He then pairs the child with a student group who will design the type of technology the child needs, fabricate it, test it and deliver it to the family over the course of a semester, he said.

His students have created toys and devices for children with sensory needs, according to Canfield.

Aubrey previously used a Hero myoelectric 3D printed arm, her mother said.

“She’s only got one, so that was not really conducive for holding drumsticks,” Jennifer Sauvie said.

The length difference as Aubrey used the single arm to attempt playing the drums were also challenging.

“She couldn’t use the Hero arm for drumming or percussion,” Jennifer Sauvie said.

Aubrey Sauvie is pictured as a baby wearing her first prosthetic arm. - Jennifer Sauvie
Aubrey Sauvie is pictured as a baby wearing her first prosthetic arm. - Jennifer Sauvie

Aubrey’s new prosthetics are more versatile, her mother added.

“The ones she has printed now are for the drums and holding drumsticks, but really, if you wanted (them) to hold kayak ores or whatever, you could theoretically just print out different tips to put on this same base (of) prosthetics,” Jennifer Sauvie said. “It’s pretty cool.”

The Tennessee Tech students worked with Aubrey through the semester to ensure the prosthetic 3D printed arms were a great fit for her.

“We would send a certain design to Aubrey, and then she would say, ‘OK, I think this is good, but it’s a little bit long, could it be shortened?’ or … ‘it’s a little bit hot on my arm, could you potentially, like, make it a little bit more breathable?’” Tennessee Tech mechanical engineering senior Zak Henson, who served as a co-leader on the project, told CNN.

“So now we’re trying to think through, ‘OK, how can we keep the design of what we’re going for and adjust it to meet these new needs?’” Henson said of the process.

The team created about six iterations of the prosthetics until they were satisfied with the finished product, mechanical engineering senior and project leader Branson Blaylock said.

Aubrey says she wasn’t certain if the 3D printed hands would work for her, but they wound up being a success.

“I was really excited that I was going to be able to use these and try them out,” said Aubrey, who wants to be an ultrasound technician when she’s older.

She added: “They are becoming a very useful and resourceful tool to help me with my drumming.”

Aubrey Sauvie, who was born with no hands and a partially amputated left foot, breaks boards for her second-degree black belt in taekwondo. - Jennifer Sauvie
Aubrey Sauvie, who was born with no hands and a partially amputated left foot, breaks boards for her second-degree black belt in taekwondo. - Jennifer Sauvie

‘She makes it look easy’

Jennifer Sauvie said she was aware Aubrey would be born with a limb difference while she was pregnant with her.

“It was really scary, of course, but if I’d only known then what I know now, it would have been a much happier, joyful pregnancy, because really, she just doesn’t let anything stop her or get in the way,” Jennifer Sauvie said.

Her daughter has participated in activities including dance, taekwondo, art and music, she shared.

The group of students working closely on prosthetic measurements and fittings with the 12-year-old found her to be an inspiration.

“Watching her do stuff that I just thought for sure there was no way she could handle that, she is just so determined,” said Micah Page, a mechanical engineering student at Tennessee Tech. “She just makes it look easy to live life without hands.”

The custom prosthetics should last for Aubrey over the next few years before she outgrows them, Canfield said.

For more CNN news and newsletters create an account at CNN.com