Saturday, April 1, 2023

Providence Teacher Makes Face-Shields and Students See Value of What They’re Learning in Real Time

One reality of life during COVID-19 is the daily emotional roller coaster we ride, driven by sad stories of pain and loss as well as uplifting stories of service and love. One story that caught my eye recently was about engineering teacher Annalisa Marchesseault at the Providence Career and Technical Academy who had brought her school’s 3-D printer home to make face shields for front line workers in need of protection. 

This story piqued my interest, in part, because I often hear about 3-D printers but don’t really understand what they are or what they can do. But mostly, my heart was touched, not only by the commitment and generosity of Mrs. Marchesseault and her family but also by how she and her co-teacher shared the experience with students. If ever there were a moment for students to see a real world application of what they are learning, this is it.

Marchesseault was kind enough to find some time to answer a few questions despite her current “pandemic” schedule of teaching full time with three children of her own at home and making face shields around the clock.

How did you get the idea to make the masks and what actually goes into making them? (And what is the technical term for what you are making?) 

I was contacted by Mark Lyons, a senior education strategist at AET Labs in Essex Mass. He sent out a generic email to tons of schools asking who had a 3D printer and was willing to help.  My first instinct was that this might be a scam because of how many names were on the initial email but I wrote back just to see. Mark responded right away with more details about what he needed. He was coordinating the efforts by sending various face shield parts to different schools in the form of  an stl file—this is the file that was already 3D modeled and ready to print on a 3D printer.

I wrote to my principal and asked if I could go to the school and bring home the 3-D printer we had in the classroom so I could help with the face shields. My principal checked with the superintendent to get further approval. As soon as they both said yes, I went to the school for the printer, picked up all the needed materials and set everything up in my kitchen. 

When Mark came to my house to pick up the first batch, he brought me the plastic shield part so I could see how it connected to the pieces I was making. I then went to staples and bought a box of 100 shields so I could put them together myself. Mark said that if there are any supplies I need, he can provide them since donations have been rolling in but for now, I am still using the filament that my school donated with the printer.

The printer is constantly going so I have shown my children and husband how to take the shields off the printer and how to assemble them. This way, if I don’t happen to be in the room, they can keep the process going to ensure the printer is always printing.  It also helps that two of my children are teenagers and stay up later than I do—they can make sure it’s printing late into the night.

Who will these masks mostly serve?

My first thought was to just donate them to Mark and have him distribute them. But then I realized I personally knew people who needed them. I gave one to my cousin who is a nurse and another to a friend who is a dental assistant. I decided to put a post on Facebook in case I had other friends and family who might need one—almost immediately, I had tons of people reaching out to me. I made some for a friend who has a husband who is a Boston Police officer, another for a friend who is a vet and now I am making a bunch for Kent Hospital and Women and Infants Hospital.

My children and I assemble the masks then I either drop them off or people come pick them up. (I make sure to just leave them in a safe place outside because of social distancing and I remind everyone to wash them down because we do not use gloves when we put them together.)

Are your students also a part of this project and if so, what is their role? How is distance learning going with your students and is COVID-19 playing a role in projects and assignments?

When I decided to make the shields, I wanted to share the experience with my students.  My co-teacher, Amy Laven, and I began to update them daily with the progress of the project. We showed the students the masks and created a lesson around the project. 

We are always trying to show our students examples of real world applications of what they are learning in school—the emergency face shield project is a powerful example. Distance learning has obviously been very different from what we are used to but we already had Google Classroom set up and have used it as a tool in our class for years. Students were already accustomed to checking their assignments online before our schools closed. The greatest challenges for my co-teacher Amy and me have been learning to use Zoom and Google Hangouts as well as finding ways to be creative with our assignments so that students can do them at home. We know they may not have a printer or graph paper to draw out views of an object the way we would in class, so we research and find online tools to fill in those gaps. 

Can you explain in a few sentences how a 3-D printer works for those of us who don’t really get it?

The 3D printer uses an extruder to place melted filament, which is plastic, layer by layer to build  the object that has been pre-loaded onto the build plate by the software. 

Can you think of other ways engineering students or 3-D printers (or both!) could help in the efforts to fight this pandemic?

We have lots of students who are helping every day just by caring for and teaching their younger siblings while they are at home. While on Zoom meetings, we have seen multiple students answering homework questions and helping younger siblings because many of them have parents who are still reporting to work. 

3D printers have helped in so many ways. There have been people making shields and making parts to fix broken ventilators. In our lesson, we asked the students to think of what they can design and make using the 3D modeling software and use then 3-D printing to bring to life.  We can’t wait to see what creative ideas they come up with. 

Can you share a bit about yourself outside of teaching—just so readers can get a sense of who you are. 

I am a mother of 3—I have a 14 year old daughter and sons who are 12 and 8. I have been married to my husband, Peter, for 16 years. I have a masters degree in Engineering and I have worked at PCTA for 5 years as a pre-engineering teacher. I also teach math as an adjunct professor at Roger Williams University. My co teacher is Amy Laven—we graduated college together as engineering majors and have been friends since we were eighteen. 

I love my job and my students and often feel like people don’t realize or appreciate the talent and intelligence of our students in Providence. I just want to help in any way I can and I want my students, and my own children, to see that one small act really can make a difference and that even when you feel like everything is scary and you don’t know what to do, it helps to just do something.

Erika Sanzi
Erika Sanzi is a former educator and elected school committee member. She is also a senior visiting fellow at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. Her blog is Good School Hunting and her Substack is Sanzi Says. She occasionally writes for other outlets including Scary Mommy, The 74, and The Hill. She is the mother of three school aged sons and calls Rhode Island home.


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