The worldwide coronavirus pandemic took so much from people over the past year. It also showed how far people will go to help others.

As life came to a grinding halt and health officials called on the public’s help to flatten the curve, nearly all group, in-person activities were cancelled due to social distancing. For a 4‑H teen robotics team in Elgin, Ill., that meant a competition season lost, but also an opportunity to help their community.

With school now on Zoom and all other activities wiped from the calendar, the “got robot?” FIRST Tech Challenge Team quickly put their newly gained free time to use by making face shields for health care and other frontline workers – tested and approved by the Kane County Coroner’s Office.

Using open-source instructions and designs found online, the team of about 11 changemakers printed and assembled the masks in their homes. At its peak, the team ran as many as 10(ten) 3-D printers in homes. Some were borrowed from school. Some families purchased them. A local dentist loaned his printer. Running around the clock, the printers made 40 headbands per day. Depending on the size of an order, a single printing run could last as long as 10 hours.

“[W]e were happy to get up in the morning, start printing, have some breakfast, [and] do some school. Hopefully, a little past lunchtime, it would be at least over halfway done,” said Brock Russell, 18, a “got robot?” member. “And then before dinner you would take it off, start a new print, maybe clean up some old ones that you’ve already got printed, and just repeat the process every day.” 

After printing the pieces, they filed down rough edges, punched holes in the plastic shields, and packaged the parts with instructions before shipping. They used a Google Drive spreadsheet to record and track orders. Team members and their families were responsible for delivering the face shields in their local communities using their local contacts and networks.

Early on, the STEM team reached out to local hospitals to see if they needed more PPE. 

“We asked, ‘Hey, how bad is it?’ And they responded with, ‘It’s 10 times worse than you imagine.’ They were washing masks, reusing gloves, bringing homemade cloth masks in, which were not medical grade at all,” Russell said. “And after we donated a couple [face shields], word of mouth just kept going and it kept getting bigger.”

The shields went to local hospitals, the coroner’s office, police and grocery workers. Postal workers also received some, said club member Raymond, 15.

“[T]hey didn’t have very much protective equipment unless they brought it from home. Especially in the early days and the mail never stopped. It probably ramped up if anything, so yeah, postal workers were another big one that we were able to give to and help and they were extremely grateful for it,” he said. 

By the end of April, they had printed 4,000 shields. In May, the team set up a GoFundMe account to offset the cost of supplies, such as filament, eventually raising more than $4,300, which was even more than they needed. As a result, they redirected nearly half that money to other critical educational needs in the community. One of those initiatives was supplying backpacks filled with STEM educational activities in both Spanish and English to local students, in partnership with the local library. Separately, the group has also used 3-D printing to make prosthetic hands for children in developing countries. 

The face shield printing reached peak production in the summer, and then as nationwide PPE production caught up, demand for the “got robot?” masks decreased by September. As of mid-March 2021, they had distributed nearly 7,300 face shields. Although many of the face shields were used in their suburban Chicago community, some of the shields went as far as Colorado and Georgia, and some found their way to Puerto Rico and Mexico.

The reach of the shields and the impact on the community surprised Burrage.

“Originally, I thought we could get these out to some people and they would help some people, but it would kind of be something that would last for maybe a month at the most, and then they would get discarded or whatever, but they’re still in use now,” he said.

Part of the impact came from lessons learned in 4‑H, such as how to work as a team and the empowerment to accomplish projects, said team mentor and Russell’s mother, Susan Russell. “It was inspiring as a mentor to see that they believe so much in what they were doing. And they’re like, ‘We can do this, we got this.’ There was no fear of the numbers. There was no fear of the amount of outreach,” she said. “It was like, a bunch of factories really pumping these things out and it was quite amazing.”

Kane County 4‑H Program Coordinator Doris Braddock has watched the evolution of the “got robot?” team for several years. Along with the community service, they share their time and knowledge whether helping with robotics competitions or teaching at summer camps, she said. 

“So anytime we need something in the robotics line, I feel confident I can call on these youth and they’ll step up to the challenge. Very proud of them,” she said.

 

The teens of “got robot?” are creating positive change in their community. Find out how you can be recognized as a changemaker by applying for the 4‑H and Invisalign® ChangeMakers Program!