PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — A MakerBot 3D printer has been running nonstop in Annalisa Marchesseault’s kitchen.
The machine is usually churning out projects in the pre-engineering classroom at the Providence Career and Technical Academy on Fricker Street. But with school buildings closed due to the COVID-19 crisis, it’s been given a temporary new home, and a crucial new job.
Marchesseault asked her school administrators if she could bring the printer home to make plastic face shields for health care workers, one of the personal protective items that’s been in demand during the pandemic.
“I have a cousin who is a nurse at Rhode Island Hospital so I made one for her, and she liked it a lot,” Marchesseault explained. She posted a photo of the shield on Facebook, and more health care workers started reaching out.
So she started making two at a time, and running the printer overnight.
“I have so many people calling and asking,” she said in an interview over Zoom. “Just today, I have another 10 already since last night.”
The plastic shields take about an hour and a half to make on the printer, and the materials were donated by the Providence Public Schools. The end result is a green plastic product that looks like a viser, and Marchesseault attaches a sheet of plastic to it that’s been three-hole-punched.
“They can wear the mask beneath it,” Marchesseault said. “While they have this on, they can’t have anything touch their face.” She said dentists, nurses and doctors have all been interested in the shields.
The project is serving a dual purpose, by serving as a distance learning lesson for Marchesseault’s pre-engineering class, which she teaches with Amy Laven.
In a Zoom session of the class on Wednesday morning, the two teachers challenged their students to design an item that could help with the COVID-19 pandemic. Their designs might end up being printed — either in Marchesseault’s kitchen, or back at school if the building reopens this year.
Laven said while it might seem like teaching hands-on technical courses would be difficult at home, it’s actually been going smoothly.
“We are hands-on, but we also focus on doing a lot of work with the kids on computer software,” Laven said. “And we do a lot of research and design work in class.”
The students already know how to use the 3D printer, so they have the context to do the design work from home using a program called Tinkercad.
“They are owed some credit,” Laven said of the students. “We are, in pre-engineering at least, a family. We work hard together, we laugh together, we cry together. … We’re all together in this.”
Marchesseault is not the only teacher in New England finding a new use for the classroom 3D printer. She got the template for the face shields from Mark Lyons, who works for Massachusetts-based educational technology company AET Labs.
Lyons, who typically travels around to schools to help with engineering programs and 3D printers, said he came up with the idea after realizing he would not have much work to do if schools were closed.
“We had a call, and the owner of the company was like, ‘What are you guys going to do to keep busy?'” Lyons said over the phone on Thursday. “So I said I’m just going to reach out and see what I can do to help.”
He came up with the idea for the face shields, and provided the template — and some materials — to schools across New England that already have 3D printers.
“I think I might’ve bit off a little more than I could chew,” he joked. “I didn’t expect there would be so many schools that would be able to help.”
He said 35 schools, including PCTA, are involved in the project. So far they’ve made about 3,000 shields, donating them to medical centers and law enforcement. He said a school in Upton just gave 150 of the shields to the Worcester County Sheriff’s Office. A GoFundMe page has been set up to raise money for materials to keep making more shields.
In Marchesseault’s house, making the shields has become a family affair; her three kids now help operate the 3D printer, and know how to remove a shield when it’s finished and start a new one.
Both Laven and Marchesseault are balancing teaching their students from home and helping their own children, who are at home too doing distance learning. Providence adjusted its school day to have a two-hour lunch break from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m., which is when the two teachers typically switch to mom mode.
“Never a dull moment,” Laven said. “We’re multitaskers.”
Kent Hospital is among those who got wind of the shield project, according to Marchesseault, and is sending someone to her home to pick up some shields later this week. She leaves them outside in a box and reminds recipients to clean and disinfect them before use.
“Care New England is thankful for the many generous donations which have been delivered systemwide,” said Robin Neale, the director of clinical effectiveness and infection prevention at the hospital group, which owns Kent and Women & Infants.
“These donations, which include Personal Protection Equipment (PPE), food, and sanitizer, have all been gratefully received by our doctors, nurses and staff on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic,” she said. “At this time, each donation, including face shields, will be used where the need is greatest.”
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