Wise Beyond His Years

CJ Harris, 17, has drawn national acclaim for his tireless efforts in raising awareness about how 3D printing technology can produce prosthetic limbs for children who need them. He was named a STEM Pillar finalist by the National 4-H Youth in Action program in September.

by Chris Bridges

CJ Harris seems to have his priorities in order.

The 17-year-old likes to meet tasks head-on and devote plenty of time and energy towards his goals. Through his efforts in 4-H, Harris has been named a STEM Pillar finalist by the National 4-H Youth in Action program for his work in raising awareness about how 3D printing can produce prosthetic limbs for children. The noble cause has required a great deal of time, but Harris has never been discouraged or steered away from his vision. The 3D printer allows for the creation of a physical object from a three-dimensional digital model, typically by laying down many thin layers of material in succession.

“The reception to what I am trying to do has been great. There has been a great deal of interest from people I talk to.”

CJ Harris

“Back in seventh grade when I was getting involved in 4-H, I enjoyed technology and graphics,” Harris said. “I wanted to bring 3D printing into 4-H to raise awareness to help those who need it. I was eager to spread the message to people there [that] this is something that can be done to help people.”

Harris has taught classes on 3D print design, making bracelets and other smaller items. However, he has never been one to think small. Harris aims high with his ideas and visions while working hard to make them realities. He became a standout member and leader in the 4-H organization early on. Harris has served on the Northwest District 4-H and the Georgia 4-H State boards of directors, and he was named a Master 4-H’er while also competing in a STEM challenge with Bill Nye the Science Guy. STEM challenges are activities where students design and build solutions to problems using a combination of science, technology, engineering and math skills. The National 4-H Council named Harris a runner-up for the 2022 4-H Youth in Action Award for STEM, citing his efforts in using 3D printing to effectively and cheaply produce prosthetic limbs for children.

“Youth like CJ Harris are an asset to the 4-H program in Georgia,” said Mandy B. Marable, faculty advisor for the state 4-H board. “He has taken the challenge of leadership and served as an officer at the district and state levels, earning the respect of his peers and the adults who lead this program. His passion for science and leadership are a great combination and allow CJ to lead with innovation, enthusiasm and a sense of discovery. His impact in his county, district and state have led him to be selected as a national influencer in the STEM area.”

Harris’ efforts began with teaching other 4-H members about service opportunities through the e-NABLE foundation—a volunteer organization that uses 3D printers to make free and low-cost prosthetic upper-limb devices for children in need. In addition to having taught classes on 3D printing and the intricacies of the human hand, he helped his local 4-H club purchase a 3D printer. Now a freshman at Georgia State University, Harris wants to someday become a mechanical engineer. While achieving that goal will take a tremendous amount of time and effort, he has never been one to back down from a challenge.

Harris, who was homeschooled until he entered college, started his 4-H journey when he was in the fourth grade. By the time he reached middle-school age, he had increased his involvement in the group dramatically, and it did not take long for others to take notice. Harris claims a light switch flipped on for him in high school. He began speaking at various 4-H events and conferences, his speeches centering on awareness as it related to using 3D printing to assist those in need of artificial limbs. Harris begged his parents for a 3D printer, and upon realizing how much community service meant to 4-H, he continued to push to bring his ideas to fruition.

“To be honest, I never thought it would go this far,” Harris said. “My 4-H agent likes journalism. When I did my first project, she wanted to write an article about it. I didn’t think that article would get picked by the Associated Press and then the New York Times and The Washington Post.”

His online story in The Washington Post has drawn more than one million views. Harris has spoken to several groups about his desire to help those who need prosthetics. “The reception to what I am trying to do has been great,” the 17-year-old said. “There has been a great deal of interest from people I talk to.” Harris credits his family for its support, pushing his desire to learn and encouraging him to expand his knowledge with each project he undertakes and each step he makes. He has already made a positive impression on countless others.

“CJ is a delight to work with,” said Dr. Lori Bledsoe, development coordinator for the Northwest 4-H program. “I can ask him to do anything and he does it with a smile. He is dependable and shows initiative in all he does.”

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