Teachers and students 3D-print protective gear for essential workers

By: Ayana Byrd

Verizon Innovative Learning resources help schools serve their communities from afar.

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Diego Marroquin, Ian Nieves, Jonathan Trujillo, Kim Laird, Max Poveda and Robbie Ramirez meet virtually to work on their design. (credit: Courtesy of Kim Laird)

In mid-March, school districts across the nation closed buildings and instituted distance learning to help contain the spread of COVID-19. In response, students and teachers scrambled to pack devices, textbooks and other supplies to prep for a new way of learning that no one saw coming. But for some Verizon Innovative Learning educators, the haul wasn’t just unexpected—it was community-changing.

Taking the Verizon mission home

Jonathan Lubas fabricates ear guards in his basement using 3D printers supplied by Verizon Innovative Learning. (credit: Courtesy of Jonathan Lubas)

“I hated that we’ve got all of this technology in this lab and now it’s just got to sit and collect dust for the rest of the year,” says Jonathan Lubas, Verizon Innovative Learning instructional coach at Entrepreneurship Preparatory Cliffs in Cleveland, Ohio. But when a friend shared that wearing masks in the hospital for hours on end was uncomfortable, Lubas had an idea that could help: he would 3D print ear guards. So he got permission to move the four desktop 3D printers that sat in his school’s 5G Verizon Innovative Learning Lab—the first in the nation—to his home. He tweaked a design that he found on a crowdsourcing website to make sure the guards were as comfortable as possible, then set up a production line in his basement.

Logging 15-hour production days, Lubas was able to create more than 1,000 guards in a week. He distributed them to the emergency medical center, police station and fire department in Lakewood, a suburb of Cleveland. Now, he has turned his eyes toward the fall, making guards for students to use when they return to school, as there may be a face mask protocol in place. Food service personnel and IT staffers are already making use of the guards as they continue to serve families. “Verizon Innovative Learning was created to benefit the students and the community,” he says. “If I can bring some of what it provides home and still be advancing the Verizon mission, it’s the least I could do.”

Colorful ear guards, ready to help first responders who must wear PPE all day. (credit: Courtesy of Jonathan Lubas)

Addressing community needs

Kim Laird, a co-teacher in the Verizon Innovative Learning program for young men of color at California State University San Bernardino, is not only using 3D printers to turn her living room into a personal protective equipment (PPE) factory, but she’s making the production a remote learning experience for her students, too.

Using the mini 3D printer provided by Verizon and another donated unit, Laird, her co-teacher Ashley Louis and five students are 3D-printing face masks. It was an idea whose roots went deeper than news reports about the nationwide shortage. “When we started, one of the boys’ mom was working at the hospital and didn’t have PPE. So we were like, ‘Okay, we have an immediate need. We can get them to their hospital. We can get them to Pomona Valley,’” recalls Laird.

Laird uses weekly virtual lessons to turn the printing into a group effort. “I actually have the students walk me through it. When I’m programming, I share the screen, and they’re the ones telling me which of the buttons to press,” she says about the meetings. “So I’m asking them questions because I want them to be the ones that are guiding what we’re doing.” The middle schoolers even used their knowledge of 3D printing technology to make repairs to the machines ahead of the school closure.

Leading with empathy

The masks that Kim Laird and Ashley Louis’ students designed and printed for essential workers. (credit: Courtesy of Kim Laird)

It takes five-and-a-half hours to make a mask from start to finish and the crew has produced 52 masks. The first batch went to student Max Poveda’s mother and her coworkers. Laird has hand-delivered and mailed others to caregivers who have requested them via word of mouth—some from as far away as Michigan. The boys, meanwhile, are focused on fine-tuning their design.

“Verizon Innovative Learning uses the design thinking process, which is a lot like any other design process, except it starts with empathy,” says Louis. “The students have really been trying to look through the eyes of others to create the best mask for their consumers, including how to change our design to be more comfortable for the wearer. Using empathy is not only a great life skill to have, but it also teaches the students to keep testing their prototypes and revising their designs.”

Building a generation of humanitarians

Creating masks is the second medical-focused project that the boys have undertaken. Last year, four of them—Max, Robbie Ramirez, Jonathan Trujillo and Ian Nieves—3D-printed a prosthetic finger for Jonathan’s brother who was born without one. “The best part has been helping the frontline workers who are fighting for us, but another amazing part has been working again with my peers even if we can’t be together,” says Robbie. Now with classmate Diego Marroquin, they have also been pondering ideas for future projects. “I have been wanting to work on a box that can go to kids in poorer communities that contain STEM projects they can do,” says Jonathan.

The instructors and Dr. Xinying Yin, the Verizon Innovative Learning program director at California State University San Bernardino, see the boys’ work as an extension of the program’s core mission. “This shows that even teenagers can help their community when equipped with the necessary knowledge and skills,” says Yin. “It also shows how meaningful and valuable Verizon’s effort to provide extraordinary learning opportunities for our next generation is, so that these young people can contribute to society.”

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