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FIRST ® Team Helps 5-Year-Old with Spinal Muscular Atrophy Gain Greater Independence

Five-year-old Makenzie Burleson was born with type 1 spinal muscular atrophy (SMA). Due to her genetic condition, Makenzie has certain needs such as using a wheelchair, nutrition and breathing assistance, and has had to work hard to learn how to communicate through her tablet and modified sign language.


The Burlesons had been in search of a supportive device for Makenzie to help her use her arms with greater ease but could not find one on the market that could adequately support and fit her particular needs. They contacted FIRST ® Robotics Competition Team 2080 “Torbotics” of Hammond, Louisiana with a request for the students to design and create a supportive device, with the goal of helping her potentially develop additional muscular strength in combination with other treatments and therapy. The team spent 14 months designing and prototyping fully functional supportive "robot arms” for Makenzie before giving her the first iteration of arms. Keep reading to learn more about the FIRST students who made this project possible.

Brayden and Jaime were the first Torbotics students inspired to take leadership roles for this project. They spent the better part of a year figuring out how to make Makenzie’s back harness supportive yet comfortable because she already had metal rods in her back that helped align her spine. Together they were able to design a solution before they graduated in May 2023. Jaime was so inspired and transformed through his work with Makenzie that he is now studying Biomedical Engineering at university.

The next supportive piece Makenzie needed was arm supports, or as Makenzie calls them, her robot arms. Current Torbotics students, Jillian, Preston, and Lauren, worked in tandem on these supportive armatures. They started off by testing what Makenzie was currently using for an entire month followed by hours of research into anatomy and physiology to understand how the arms needed to work. As the ‘robot arms’ were coming to life and resembling a ball and socket joint, another group of students created a strategic marketing campaign to generate community support for the project. Through this campaign, the team graciously accepted donations of filament for the 3-D printer which is what the supportive arms are built from.

On July 13, 2023, Makenzie was able to take home her new supportive arms! Since receiving the support system from Torbotics, Makenzie has been able to spend significantly more time doing physical therapy and is even able to get out of her wheelchair both during physical therapy appointments and in her everyday life. Both the Torbotics team and the Burlesons continue to stay connected and support each other, redesigning and adding more features to help Makenzie live a more independent life.

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