Century orthotic and prosthetic program stands tall

Century College prosthetic faculty member Steve Stolberg displays a wall of prosthetic samples students have fabricated.

WHITE BEAR LAKE — Century College is home to the only orthotic and prosthetic program in the state.

In fact, it was the first technical-level program in the nation when it was started in 1974 through a community effort put forth by the Twin Cities Orthotics and Prosthetics chapter, said Stan O'Connor, director of prosthetic education.

Last month, through donations totaling $1.7 million over the last four years and $300,000 in state funds, the program received a state-of-the-art robotic carving machine, O'Connor said. The machine can drill holes, plasma cut and weld, said orthotic faculty member Chad Smith, which is perfect for the profession that fabricates artificial limbs and orthopedic braces. 

“We are just beginning to design curriculum around all of its capabilities,” said Katie Voss, director of orthotic education. “The potential is great.” The seven-axis robotic arm machine will be shared with other departments, such as for welding and auto body classes.

The orthotic and prosthetic program offers education from a diploma to a master’s degree.

“Our programs are designed in the career ladder approach,” Voss said.

Century College is the first school in the nation to open a practitioner assistant level between its technician program and master's degree program. The program started last year and is so new its accreditation standards are still being finalized, Voss said.

“We are the first school in the country to be ready with our actual assistant level education model,” she said. The program will start off as a post-associate diploma option, but Century would like to grow it into a bachelor's degree.

Its technician program offers a diploma or associate degree in applied science. The master's degree is in partnership with Concordia University in St. Paul.

“We are the only school to offer all three levels of training,” O'Connor said.

Graduates can be technicians who make prosthetics, fitters who work with practitioners, or, with a master's degree, practitioners themselves.

“There are only seven total technical-level training programs in the U.S.,” Voss said.

Naturally, students come from across the country and the world for the program.

“We have had students here from every state in the country and international students from 17 different countries,” O'Connor said. This year it has 72 students in its technician program, 24 in its assistant program and 30 in its master's program. About 60 percent come from out-of-state.

Orthotic and prosthetic users and veterans are often attracted to the career, Voss said.

Graduates have good job outlooks.

“We guarantee 100 percent placement of graduates as long as they are willing to relocate,” O'Connor said, noting employers nationwide pursue their graduates.

“It has been a fun, rewarding program if you like working with your hands and helping people,” he said.

“We are considered kind of a hidden profession,” Smith said.


The making of prosthetic and orthotic makers

Local patients volunteer to assist the students as they learn how to make prosthetics and orthotics.

“We use actual users of the devices as models,” Voss said, noting students who use the devices also volunteer for classmates. “We have a lot of students who are amputees or users of orthotic devices.”

Students evaluate the prosthetic limbs and then fabricate a device based on what they observe in the model. They also do a test fit on the user.

“Students learn how to cast and evaluate the patient,” said prosthetic faculty member Steve Stolberg, who was the first student in the program 40 years ago.

“We have a very hands-on approach to learning,” Voss said. “It is a very active classroom.” In the technician program, students aren't graded on their fabrications. Instead, they repeat a project until they get it right.

“The goal is to master the skills,” Voss said. “They have the opportunity to practice and practice.”

Students are using 3-D printing in the college's fab lab to investigate new ways to make prosthetics.

“They love the opportunity because they are free to do whatever they dream up,” Voss said.

But for the most part, the science of prosthetics and orthotics hasn't changed too much — completely 3-D printed orthotics and prosthetics are still in the future.

“The traditional materials of metal and leather and such don't ever really go away,” Voss said. “We are adding new materials, but it doesn't usually eliminate the old. We add on things like a 3-D printing piece.”  

O'Connor has seen materials shift over 40 years — from wooden legs to urethane foam to the beginnings of 3-D printing.

The program has a well-known library collection that receives requests for materials from across the country, even from the Library of Congress.

“I believe it to be the largest orthotic and prosthetic library collection in the world,” Voss said. Librarian Cheryl Langevin has been acknowledged by the Digital Resource Foundation for Orthotics and Prosthetics for her efforts in preserving a collection donated by A. Bennett Wilson Jr.

Also on the world stage is Century alumna Melissa Stockwell, who won a bronze medal in the paratriathlon at the Paralympic Games in Rio Sept. 11.

Stockwell is an Iraq veteran who served as a first lieutenant. Her left leg was lost in Baghdad when a bomb exploded. She was awarded the Purple Heart and Bronze Star.

Stockwell was the first Iraq veteran in the Paralympic Games in 2008 and competed in swimming.

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