Among the many items essential healthcare workers rely upon to keep them safer during the COVID-19 pandemic is a clear, plastic shield that fits on their head, covering their faces. And, like other items, face shields are running in short supply.
Faculty at SIU are pitching in to help solve the local shortage.
Lingguo Bu, associate professor of curriculum and instruction, with support from the SIU STEM Education Research Center, has delivered about 40 shields to Southern Illinois Healthcare, a major healthcare provider in southern Illinois. Bu is one of several faculty and students using 3D printing technology housed at the university to manufacture the shields in the face of growing demand.
"We're glad we can do something to serve the community, which is one of the missions of the university," Bu said.
SIU longstanding mission of service
SIH officials said the shields are a critical need for their healthcare workers.
"The 3D technology to produce face shields for our healthcare providers is a game-changer," said SIH Chief Nursing Officer Jennifer Harre. "I am so appreciative of the university's efforts to stand in the gap and support us during the COVID-19 crisis."
SIU faculty and students routinely perform outreach with local agencies. It was one of these service missions -- a workshop with local schools -- that made the connection and started the process this time. Bu said his son's fifth-grade teacher at Carbondale's Lewis School first alerted him to the need for shields locally, as well as available construction plans that could be used to make them.
"Over years we've built a 3D design lab, and we use designs and printing to serve our students as well as STEM teachers in the area," Bu said. "Because of this, we got a message from a Lewis School teacher with whom we had done a workshop, as well as from another of my students from Mt. Vernon whose husband does laser cutting. They told us about the SIH request for the shields."
SIH sent the construction plan files, created by the European Prusa 3D printing team and recommended by SIH, to SIU. Faculty were off and running from there, with Grant Miller, associate professor of curriculum and instruction, and Harvey Henson, director of the STEM Education Research Center, leading the way along with Bu.
Manufacture gearing up
They began working with raw filaments and other materials they had on hand, but have ordered more. They plan to continue building the shields as long as they are needed.
"The 3D design lab has been supported by the STEM Center and the SIU Foundation over the years," Bu said. "We designed some tools to make the clear face shields. But the STEM Center is fully supporting this effort with equipment, space and supplies. We worked together closely to make this happen."
Aaron Scott, associate professor of design in the School of Art and Design, is also working on building the shields.
"We have created a few prototypes and are now just waiting on our materials to arrive. Then we will begin production," he said. "We are utilizing the equipment, 3D printer, laser cutter and space in the School of Art and Design's design area to create the face shields."
Bu said his lab can currently make about a dozen shields a day, but that capacity could grow if demand persists or increases.
STEM Center, collaboration play vital roles
Henson said the STEM Education Research Center is a collaboration of STEM faculty, staff and students working to address issues, study problems and explore interests in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM). The center uses external funding to provide financial support to SIU faculty, staff and students to help cover research related expenses, and offers support and resources to regional educators to advance STEM learning.
Working collaboratively with colleagues such as Bu and Miller to put STEM learning and research into action during the COVID-19 pandemic, and creatively serving the community, is a great way to demonstrate the importance of STEM, Henson said.
"The STEM center is covering the cost of 3D printing and materials used to produce the shields, and providing student workers and staff to help out," Henson said. "SIU faculty and students have a long tradition of giving and serving to the region and this is an important time to help out."
Bu said the group will remain committed to helping any way it can until the health emergency has passed.
"It feels great to be useful and meet the needs of the community," Bu said. "At SIU, we serve. Our students in the community were the ones who reached out to us, believing we could do something to help, and that makes us feel great."