3D printing a solution ORISE K-12 group supports health care workers fighting COVID-19

When COVID-19 began spreading across East Tennessee, schools went silent. With books left on abandoned desks and laptops gathered in backpacks, students returned home indefinitely, and the doors of educational institutions across the state locked behind them.

As a result, ORISE K-12 experts were left to figure out how they could use their expertise to impact science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) learning amidst the pandemic. Their flights to schools across the country where they lead teacher professional development workshops were cancelled. Decisions were made to shift yearly summer camps to virtual experiences. And the team was left with rooms full of educational technology, such as 3D printers, and no one to use them.

3D printing a solution

K-12 STEM Section Manager Jennifer Tyrell gives her children, Caleb, 6, and Isabella, 4, a home school lesson in 3D printing as she creates ear guards for local health care workers.

But that changed when K-12 Program Management Specialist Kayla Canario had an idea. She saw on social media that a Boy Scout created a solution for health care workers suffering from the discomforts of N95 masks. The student designed a file that would allow a 3D printer to produce ear guards to prevent the elastic bands on masks from rubbing health care workers’ ears raw.

“I thought, ‘you know, we have 3D printers just sitting idle,’” said Canario. “Why can’t we start printing these for local health care workers?”

Canario joined forces with K-12 STEM Section Manager Jennifer Tyrell and reached out to a local group whose mission was producing and distributing masks to health care professionals in need. Tyrell said when they contacted the group, not only was the group in need of ear guards to distribute, but the community needed a plastic pattern that could be used to create fabric masks without wearing out, unlike paper patterns.

With a new purpose and need for STEM expertise, Canario retrieved the forgotten 3D printers used for K-12 STEM education programs and dropped them on the porches of several members of the K-12 team. In their own homes, they each used leftover filament to begin printing the coveted ear guards and mask patterns. Donations of filament were also made to the group from ORAU when they heard about the team’s project.

“There was a decent learning curve for some of us to use 3D printers we had never used,” Canario explained. Despite the learning curve, Canario and Tyrell were not deterred.

“Luckily, our intern, Vincent Jodoin, was willing to give us all tutorials over video chat. Once the printers were working, we downloaded the file from Thingiverse, an open source site where people post printable files they create. Anyone can download any of the files at no cost.”

Within one month from the time the project started, their team printed over 1,000 ear guards to be donated to health care professionals in East Tennessee.

“I think in difficult times, like a global pandemic, it’s important for us to use our resources and talents to do everything we can to help,” said Canario. “Even making an ear guard for a health care worker to give them a small amount of comfort makes an impact.”

And the team was sure to give back to Thingiverse, the website they originally borrowed the ear guard patterns from for their 3D printers.

“We posted the 3D print file for the cloth facemask pattern to Thingiverse so that other makers can print the reusable plastic pattern,” said Tyrell.

As stay-at-home requirements have been lifted in Tennessee, the need for ear guards and masks has dwindled, so the team has stopped production for now. If the need arises again, though, Canario said they will restart production.

“While I might not be equipped to work on the eradication of the virus itself, I can show support and provide comfort to those who make frontline impacts,” she said.

ORISE offers numerous programs to teach 3D printing and programming to students and teachers including the Joint Science and Technology Institute, STEM after-school clubs and teacher professional development workshops.