Printing a Skeleton

  • March 22, 2019

Cal State East Bay has skeletons in its closets. Or at least pieces of them.

The bones are parts of skeletons used by the kinesiology department to study anatomy, but over the years the skeletons have lost pieces that are expensive to replace.

But for the spring 2019 semester, a group of kinesiology students has partnered with students from the multimedia department and two local high schoolers to take a unique approach to replace the pieces.

By re-printing them.

“We’re not even sure how the missing pieces happen … but they are incomplete so we have to keep replacing them,” said Andrew Denys, a kinesiology master’s student and instructional support assistant. “So in [talking with Professor Vanessa Yingling] about possibly donating the bones to schools, I got thinking and realized, ‘Why don’t we try printing and rebuilding the entire skeleton, instead of just disassembling them and leaving them in closets.’”


As 3-D printing continues to grow in popularity and transform manufacturing, many medical professionals are looking toward technology as a way to help the millions of people worldwide in need of prosthetics.

“The whole idea is including not just kinesiology students, but media arts as well and taking this interdisciplinary approach.”

“On the biomechanical side, 3-D prosthetics allow us to ask, ‘How do we make something that is totally customizable and can function in the same way as a limb?’ and onthe sociology side of kinesiology, we’re studying how that becomes a part of the person,” Denys said.

And that’s not all. Three-dimensional printing technology has been used to create customized (and removable) casts for broken bones, skin for burn survivors and facial reconstruction parts.

According to kinesiology professor Vanessa Yingling, 3-D prosthetics are becoming popular in part because of their cost effectiveness. And universities are taking note. Cal State East Bay hopes to bring in a prosthetics company from San Leandro, and CSU Dominguez Hills has a health science master’s degree with an option in orthotics and prosthetics that includes the technology.

“It’s a growing demand for sure,” Denys said. “We’re right at the brink of where it’s going to become way more relevant, and we want our students to have already seen and used the technology.”

Innovation in Learning

At the heart of the skeleton printing projects are students and instructors from three distinct areas — kinesiology, multimedia arts and Tennyson High School. But Denys and Yingling, who are co-leading the project with Assistant Professor of  Art Ian Pollock and  3-D instructor Ben Hawklyn, say their differences are what make the group strong.

“The whole idea is including not just kinesiology students, but media arts as well and taking this interdisciplinary approach,” Denys said.

“Interdisciplinary [projects] represent how our students will work in the workplace.”

According to a 2010 study from the College of DuPage in Illinois, interdisciplinary learning has the potential to expand student understanding and achievement among all disciplines. It enhances communications skills and encourages tolerance, leadership and collaboration skills.

These types of projects will be at the center of Cal State East Bay’s new CORE building and the Hub for Entrepreneurship and Innovation, which will break ground in April 2019.

“Interdisciplinary [projects] represent how our students will work in the workplace,” Yingling said. “Very few worksites have only one discipline working there. It promotes collaboration and the ability to understand a topic from another point of view.”

CORE and the Hub will provide students like Denys’ team with the technology, tools and access to faculty and professional expertise they need to drive innovation and create solutions for modern-day problems. The center will include printing and scanning machines, modeling and prototyping technology, milling equipment for creating custom circuit boards, and craft precision parts and tools.


By involving the two students from Tennyson High School, Denys hopes to not only foster an eagerness for learning in the teens but also to support the students in their pursuit of higher education.

“This community approach we’re taking is important.”

“This community approach we’re taking is important,” Denys said. “We have programs here at East Bay like [Hayward Promise Neighborhoods] that focus on how we get students from the community to continue through university and see that education is something important. If I can get more students the opportunity to see the university and what we do here while giving them a unique experience, that’s a win for me.”

The pair will take the finished skeleton back to their school for use in anatomy classes, where currently students must learn from diagrams and books.

“Without a skeleton, learning anatomy is very different,” Denys said. “You can look at a textbook, but if you have a model in front of you, you can move it around, see and feel how the joints work. It’s another dimension of learning.”

Both he and Yingling hope the reconstruction of Cal State East Bay’s skeleton is the start of a more significant project that will eventually piece together all the cast-aside bones.

“I’m sure there’s a lot of these closets full of skeletons,” Denys said. “If we can just replace a few of the missing pieces, they could easily be handed off to schools that need them.”