Students should learn to devise and collaborate on solutions to real-world problems, says Jill Levine, Chief of Innovation and Choice at Hamilton County (Tenn.) Schools.

Sep 24 2020

Schools and Educators Use Tech to “Make” a Difference

K–12 students and educators are using makerspaces to serve the greater good — producing protective gear, prosthetics and more.

When high school senior Noah Sullivan heard that healthcare workers were short on protective gear during the COVID-19 pandemic, he knew he wanted to help.

Noah’s mother, Alexandra Sullivan, is the principal of Deer Hill Elementary in Massachusetts, where she has access to two MakerBot Replicator Plus Educators Edition 3D printers. The Sullivans have printed more than 80 straps to hold face shields in place, and now they’re working on a plan to mass-produce face masks.

“It shows us how much fundamental good this technology can do when people leverage it in a collaborative way,” Noah says.

In K–12 districts nationwide, students and teachers have been leveraging their makerspace resources in support of the wider community. Before COVID-19, they were printing prosthetic hands and other limbs for those in need. More recently they’ve turned to protective gear in support of frontline medical workers. All of these efforts suggest a new model in which K–12 technology resources can be used to forge ties to the world outside of the classroom.

“We are in a space where schools are working much more closely with their communities, where empathy becomes a driving force for STEM projects,” says Johannes Strobel, a professor of STEM education research at the University of Missouri. “Typically, students’ work is seen by the teacher and maybe in a parent showcase. It’s not something that the community sees and can use. Now we have a learning project that actually connects back to the community.”

Persistent PPE Shortages Prompt K–12 Schools to Help Out

At the outset of the coronavirus pandemic, officials in Tennessee’s Hamilton County Schools rounded up their 73 Dremel and Prusa printers into a single lab, where they have digitally printed nearly 4,500 headbands to secure face shields for healthcare workers.

Teachers volunteer their efforts in the open space — no more than eight at a time, to maintain physical distancing — and some share the fabrication process with students via Zoom.

“We want to educate future leaders who can be thoughtful and can work together to solve real-world problems. This is a great example of that,” says Jill Levine, chief of innovation and choice at HCS.

In addition to 3D printing the headbands, the district also is using its makerspace to laser-cut foam padding to ensure workers can comfortably wear the plexiglass masks for many hours.

“We worked with local doctors to prototype the kinds of things they would be using, and we’ve heard feedback that the ones we are producing are more comfortable than the standard-issue ones,” Levine says.

At Cleveland County Schools in North Carolina, educators have been fabricating masks for healthcare workers using MakerBot Replicator 5th Generation printers and two smaller MakerBot Sketch Classroom printers. The school already had 3D printers on hand as an aid to classroom education.

We want to educate future leaders who can be thoughtful and can work together to solve real-world problems. This is a great example of that."

Jill Levine Chief of Innovation and Choice, Hamilton County (Tenn.) Schools

“I use it to print out things like fossil replicas that the students can use for different lab exercises,” says Beverly Owens, an eighth grade science teacher at Kings Mountain Middle School. At the start of the pandemic, she pulled down designs from the MakerBot design-sharing platform Thingiverse, and has since printed more than 400 pieces of PPE.

“I’ve always felt that if you have the ability, then you have the responsibility,” she says. “I have these machines, I have the capability, and I am happy to do whatever I can to help.”

READ MORE: Learn about the classroom benefits of 3D printers.

Schools Leverage Tech to Serve Broader Community

That spirit of responsibility had educators making creative use of their additive-manufacturing capabilities even before the coronavirus pandemic, putting their technology resources to use in support of community needs.

At Clayton-Bradley Academy in Maryville, Tenn., engineering and robotics specialist Barry Lucas has helped his students use four MakerBot Replicator Plus printers to manufacture prosthetic limbs for kids in need.

That wasn’t the original plan. The printers generally support classroom learning, with students printing everything from model bridges and turbines to parts for autonomous vehicles. For the prosthetics effort, the school teamed with e-NABLE, a network of volunteers who create 3D-printed prosthetics for people in need, especially children.

“The arms we print are for youth who have a functioning elbow and some portion of their forearm,” Lucas says. “It attaches to the bicep/triceps above the elbow and on the forearm below the elbow, and that hinge serves as a mechanical actuator. When you move the elbow, it opens and closes the hand.”

More than just an exercise in engineering, the project has helped broaden students’ engagement with the wider world. “When the students worked on this project, it became so much bigger, especially when they met these young individuals who received the limbs,” Lucas says. “Not many kids get the opportunity to see how the things they do in class can actually change someone’s life.”

In Nevada, Carson Montessori Charter School also is teaming with e-NABLE and using other printers to manufacture parts that are assembled into prosthetic hands. Students have driven the project from the ground up.

“The students built the 3D printers — they actually put them together themselves,” Principal Jessica Daniels says. “And these prosthetic hands, they don’t just print in one piece, we print them in parts and then assemble those basic parts. So the students are engaged in every step of the process.”

Daniels also sees more here than just a classroom exercise in modern technology. By putting that technology to use for social good, the school can teach a bigger lesson.

6 to 8 hours

The time it takes Clayton-Bradley Academy students to produce one prosthetic hand with a 3D printer

Source: Clayton-Bradley Academy

Current Challenges Spur New Uses for Existing Tech

The world has changed radically because of the spread of COVID-19, and many schools have pivoted to make use of their 3D printers in response to the pandemic.

For the Sullivans, the effort to print PPE marks a departure from the usual uses of 3D printing. “They had been used previously for things like the town’s 250th anniversary, where we had a schoolwide project to create a 3D replica map of our town with all the historic sites,” Alexandra Sullivan says.

Noah Sullivan has used plans from the National Institutes of Health to design the mask bands and facemasks.

“There was really no need for me to reinvent the wheel,” he says. “There are so many designs, with lots of websites sharing designs, and now the NIH has a website dedicated to designs that are approved for clinical use as well as designs that work for public use.”

His mother, meanwhile, says the effort could help both schools and citizens to reimagine the possible ties between students and the wider world.

“It brings full circle the relationships we try to have with the other members of our community and our town,” she says. “It sends a strong message about the ‘why’ behind the kinds of educational things that we do.”

Dan Miles has likewise been focused on that bigger picture. As a physical education teacher and technology integration specialist at Barboursville Middle School in West Virginia, he has leveraged four of the county’s Dremel 220-01 printers to fabricate more than 3,000 headbands for face shields.

“Now the community realizes what the school has to offer, the everyday, real-life applications that our kids can be involved in,” he says. “If we can make the community aware of what we are doing in the schools, then we can start to talk about how they can also be a part of what we do.”

Photography by William DeShazer