A feather-brained scheme: 3D printers used to give duck a leg-up - Today's news, tomorrow's lesson - 3 July

A feather-brained scheme: 3D printers used to give duck a leg-up - Today’s news, tomorrow’s lesson - 3 July

Today's news, tomorrow's lesson - 3 July

A feather-brained scheme: 3D printers used to give duck a leg-up

It sounds like a euphemism for the bleeding obvious: is the Pope Catholic? Do bears do their business in the woods? Do one-legged ducks swim in circles?

But the answer to the last of these is no longer, “Of course they do.” It is: “Well, that depends on whether or not it has access to a three-dimensional printer.”

Buttercup, a one-legged duck born in a school biology lab, has had a prosthetic foot printed, using the latest three-dimensional technology. Buttercup was born with his left foot turned backwards. Biology teachers at the US high school where he was born felt unable to care for him, and so he was sent to live on the Feathered Angels Waterfowl Sanctuary, in Arlington, Tennessee.

The deformed leg was amputated in February. But sanctuary owner Mike Garey was not happy with simply winging it when it came to Buttercup’s care. And so he began looking into the possibility of a replacement limb. Specifically, he looked at the potential of 3D printing: some day, he believed, Buttercup’s prints would come.

Printing company Novacopy donated a computer model, replicating the left foot of his sister, Minnie. This was then printed out in silicone, and attached to Buttercup’s leg with a silicone sock. YouTube videos show him waddling on his new foot, with only the hint of a duckish limp.

Buttercup’s is not the first printed prosthesis. In 2011, a woman in the Netherlands received a 3D lower jaw, printed from titanium. And, in May this year, a South African carpenter designed a mechanical hand, made mostly from printed parts.

But 3D printing can be used for foul, as well as fowl, play. Earlier this summer, an engineer in the US state of Wisconsin produced a 3D gun for only $25. Print plans behind the gun, known as the Liberator, were downloaded 100,000 times before they were removed from the internet. When two Liberators were printed out by Australian police, one fell apart when it was fired. The other was able to send bullets almost seven inches into a resin block resembling human flesh.

Matt Ratto, a scientist at the University of Toronto, told the Canadian Globe and Mail: “It’s only useful if you want to kill someone from about three feet away.” This will doubtlessly prove endlessly comforting to anyone standing three and a half feet away from a Liberator.


  • What is your reaction to the idea of 3D printing? Are your feelings positive or negative?
  • Why do you think people are sometimes afraid of new technology?
  • List some examples of technology that we now use every day but that may have seemed outlandish when first invented.
  • Who do you think should be responsible for ensuring that 3D printing is used responsibly, rather than to create weapons such as the Liberator?

Related resources

Engineering prosthetics

  • Help pupils understand the materials and work that goes into producing prosthetics in this lesson from IETFaraday.

Duck research

  • A template sheet for pupils to compile research about ducks. The sheet contains boxes to write notes and space to write a few summary sentences.

Paralysed rats walk again

  • A video from Veritasium! showing how a combination of neurotransmitters and electrical stimulation can restore movement to the lower limbs of previously paralysed rats.

Smart muscle

  • Can smart materials be used to mimic human muscle? Students will test a smart spring and try to develop ideas to use the technology in a prosthetic or robotic arm.

Further news resources

First News front page

  • Help your pupils understand the features of the front page of a newspaper.

Write all about it

  • Get students creating their own news report with this step-by-step guide.

What is the News?

  • A sociological and media perspective on what makes an event 'newsworthy'.

On the box

  • Help pupils to write their own TV news broadcast with this handy PowerPoint.

Structuring stories

  • A scheme of work to help students structure news stories.

In the news this week

For the second time in almost as many years, Egypt has been rocked by huge protests this weekend as the country’s capital, Cairo, witnessed mass demonstrations against the government.

Three-parent babies a possibility after British government backs new IVF technique

The play’s the thing: novelists to reinterpret Shakespeare for a contemporary crowd

President Barack Obama yesterday opened up what is likely to be a bruising political battle, unveiling his country's most ambitious proposals to cut carbon dioxide emissions ever.

In the news archive index