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Robotics team uses 3-D printer and sewing skills to help healthcare workers

High school students and mentors with Pearl River County’s Team CHAOS are applying their STEAM skills to help the community stay protected during the pandemic.

Girls on the robotics team, including 11th grade students and one 8th grader, have been sewing cloth face masks. One student began making surgical caps too, said Picayune School District teacher Karen Balch. Balch and her family have been putting the team’s 3-D printer to work making face shields in their home. The protective gear is being given away for free to area healthcare workers and essential employees. The team is coordinating its efforts through email and text message.

The students are sewing facemasks in their own homes using complex patterns, said Balch, even though not all of them had sewing experience. The 8th grade student and her mother taught themselves to use the sewing machine, said Balch.

“They’re eager just to help,” she said.

Balch’s husband Donald was scrolling Facebook when he saw other robotics teams using their equipment to print face shields. So, with the permission of Assistant Superintendent Walt Esslinger, Balch retrieved the team’s 3-d printer from the closed school building and brought it to her home, where it is running every day to produce lightweight face shields.
One of the students is trying to start 3-D printing shields in her home too.

The 3-D printer takes a little over an hour to print a headband similar to a visor that sits around the forehead and has knobs on the outside. Laminating pouches are heated, then given holes to match the headband and snapped on. Balch is using PLA filament to print the masks and 9 by 11 and a half inch five-millimeter laminating pouches.

The completed face shields cover the wearer’s entire face from forehead to below the chin. The face shields are lightweight and can be easily wiped down for reuse. Between the team’s 3-D printer and a small printer that Balch’s son had, the family can print between six and eight shields in a day.

Other robotics teams across the state are also using their equipment to print different face shield designs, depending on an individual’s needs, said Balch.

Many medical offices have only needed a small number of face shields because only a few people are working at any given time and the shields can be cleaned and reused by different employees on the next shift, said Balch.

The team has delivered approximately 60 face shields and 50 cloth masks to Highland Community Hospital, Pearl River County Hospital and Nursing Home and medical offices in Picayune, Mandeville and Bogalusa.

If the team knows about a need or receives a request for face masks or shields, they try to meet that need. The team delivered protective gear to employees at Stennis Space Center who are essential personnel working in labs and one of the girls took cloth masks to school cafeteria staff who are distributing grab and go lunches.

“If we don’t have them on hand, we can get the order filled if someone needs them,” said Balch.

Anyone in need of face masks or face shields can contact the team through the Facebook page or email Balch at kbalch@pcu.k12.ms.us. Donations of extra material, like cotton or cotton blend fabric, would be welcome, said Balch, as it is hard to go to stores at the moment.