July 24, 2020

Earlier this year, on the last Saturday of spring break, Alex Stiles reached out through a GroupMe chat to ask University of Tennessee, Knoxville, Tickle College of Engineering (TCOE) student group presidents if any of them had personal 3D printers and would be interested in supporting Tennessee Emergency Management Agency’s (TEMA) call to create headband portions of face shields for health care workers supporting COVID-19 patients. 

 He immediately got a response of more than a dozen UT students, which led to the creation of  over 200 face shield headbands in three days.   

 Stiles is a PhD candidate in energy science and engineering through the UT-ORNL Bredesen Center for Interdisciplinary Research and Graduate Education, where he is a graduate fellow who has participated on many technical research projects and has led many workforce development initiatives through IACMI – The Composites Institute 

Stiles is a graduate leader at the IACMI-supported Fibers and Composites Manufacturing Facility (FCMF), led by IACMI’s Chief Technology Officer and UTORNL Governor’s Chair in Advanced Materials, Uday Vaidya.  Dr. Vaidya was coordinator for the university-wide effort to produce headbands for face shields, tapping into the many maker spaces and labs on campus with 3D printers.  The “student team” formed by Stiles supported this larger effort,   with help from undergraduate, graduate students and even alumni from UT. Peter Tarle is an undergraduate physics and chemistry double major and president of UT’s Student Space Technology Association; Jackson Wilt is an undergraduate senior in mechanical engineering; and Christopher Forsyth is an undergraduate senior biomedical engineering major. These three students personally produced the most headband parts of the face shields from the student group. 

 Prior to creating hundreds of face shield headbands, the students had recognized the potential for 3D printing, but also understood that many others thought of their personal printers as hobbies to tinker with in their spare time. But the pandemic put the potential for creation in a new perspective. 

 “This was an opportunity for us to be active and positive participants during the pandemic. The more that we could do, the quicker people could be safe,” noted Wilt. 

 Through 3D printing the headbands, the students recognized how their education is being catalyzed to solve real-world problems through both their classroom experience and technical knowledge.  

 “As scientists and engineers, we’re being trained how to support society by solving problems from an engineering perspective. We’re trying to understand how the world works, and then apply a technology to make it more habitable,” said Tarle. 

 In addition to their academic knowledge, the students attribute their generation’s interconnected worldview to the rapid response to support the face shield creation.  

Tarle noted, “We are a very globally connected generation. Because of our instant access to information and peers, we feel the burden of the entire world on our shoulders because we can see it [the pandemic crisis] in real time.” 

 Stiles recognizes that the primarily young generation of people with personal 3D printers are used to crowdsourcing solutions and were socially prepared to quickly respond.  

 “For those who grew up with the internet and are so used to rapid communication through platforms such as online forums, they are used to sharing information quickly,” Stiles said. There is a huge community of 3D printer users dedicated to open-source innovation. Some share print settings and printer upgrades, while  others respond with innovative product designs. They had these designs for face shields posted early. This was already something that was on the radar for these people at home with their printers. 

 The combination of the academic knowledge, culture of quick response, as well as the personal impact pushed these students to work hard to create solutions.  

 Forsythe noted, “I am going to medical school in the fall. I have friends who are on the front lines, and one of these days – if all goes according to plan – I will be on the front lines, too.”  

 AdditionallyStiles’ wife is a certified nurse midwife, continuing to see patients which also means making herself vulnerable to contract the virus.  

 This ability to personally connect to the situation drove the students to work hard to create the headbands. Tarle described his reasoning: “When you start running the numbers, you can calculate per missed mask – per hour of extra sleep between prints – what the potential risk to society would be. If you start thinking that way, you want to make sure to get those face shields printed as fast as possible.” 

 The students see themselves as one small part of the massive effort to manufacture life-saving protective equipment that ultimately delivered more than 15,000 face shields state-wide to the Tennessee Emergency Management Agency (TEMA) for use in TN hospitals 

 Between personal 3D printers, university Maker Spaces, and professors with 3D printers, the UT community produced over 10,000 headbands to support the state effort. 

 These students are an example of the driven and capable workforce of the future who applies their academic knowledge, perseverance, and creativity to solve real world solutions. As Stiles puts it, “I think most of us are ready and willing to help, we just need to be pointed in the right direction. 

 In the midst of a pandemic, students like those working to create face shields for end users have been able to leverage their opportunities to support their own communities. IACMI is proud to partner with innovative organizations, such as the UTORNL Bredesen Center, and to support the success demonstrated in the leadership – both technical and service – of students like Stiles and those who have dedicated their time to serving the needs of their communities.