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FIRST Robotics Team Employs Skills to Protect Health Care Workers From Coronavirus

Romeo high school students produce more than 10,000 medical shields

ROMEO, Mich. — With COVID-19 putting the brakes on FIRST Robotics competitions around the world, a team from Romeo High School in Michigan—a Ford Next Generation Learning (Ford NGL) community—turned their attention to a new project: Producing medical face shields for doctors, nurses and first responders.

John Brass with 3D printer in background
Jack Brass, a sophomore on the Byting Bulldogs, a For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology (FIRST) Robotics Competition team based in Washington/Romeo, Michigan.

The Byting Bulldogs FIRST Robotics team was expecting to put their 150-pound robot to the grueling test of worldwide competition this spring, but the coronavirus derailed their plans and presented a different challenge. The 40-plus team members suddenly found themselves with a lot of extra time on their hands, and they discovered a new way to use their skills.

"We wanted to do something to help people," said Mike Savage, teacher and team leader. "One of my friends is a firefighter in St. Clair Shores. He came to us with a design for a shield and said he needs 25 of these for his guys. I told him we can do that."

"We had just finished building one of our team's best robots and to find out that we were not going to be able to compete was disappointing," said Cameron Coesens, a senior at Romeo High School. "Once we started to distribute the shields to local hospitals and firefighters the response was amazing."

The students used 3D printers to create plastic headbands and used overhead transparencies or laminates to create face shields. To connect the two pieces, holes are punched in the shield material, which is then attached to knobs on the headband.

Assorted colors plastic mask fastener parts and installation instructions on table
Face shield headbands from the 3D printer after the Byting Bulldogs' tenth year was cut short with only one competition.

The team from Romeo High School started out with about 10 printers, mostly borrowed from the school. Once word got out about their efforts, help began rolling in. Parents offered to lend a hand. FIRST Robotics teams from surrounding communities joined in to boost production. Calls came in from all over Michigan, as well as Kansas, Minnesota, New Jersey and other states. A local church contributed $3,000 to the cause. A man dropped by with four 3D printers. A GoFundMe page brought in financial donations for materials and equipment. Moral support is everywhere. They now have more than 75 printers. The Romeo team and satellite locations elsewhere were soon producing 400 shields a day.

Keep in mind, production was taking place during a time of social distancing and stay at home orders, so the entire effort was coordinated online. Some students made headbands with the 3D printers. Others punched holes, connected the shields or worked with suppliers to get more plastic or laminates. Relay stations with drop boxes were set up at fire stations and other locations where parts could be delivered and picked up. More than 10,000 shields have been produced since the effort began in late March.

As the number of coronavirus cases slows, demand is starting to ease for the shields, so some of the students have turned to making ear straps for N95 masks.

Ten nurses wearing scrubs and cloth face masks stand around table with cloth and plastic face shields. Eight wearing face shields.
Ascension St. John Children's Hospital nurses in Detroit where the Byting Bulldogs donated some of the 400 shields created per day.

"The kids are really used to prototyping and coming up with ideas, and some of those ideas not working," added Savage. "We came up with a good design and then we opened it up to some suggestions, like adapting them for glasses. So, we went back and fixed it. It’s a lot like with our robot. It’s really lent itself well to the skill set our kids are developing."

"This whole experience is a real teaching experience," said Coesens. "It feels amazing to be part of a group of people that are helping produce equipment for health care professionals in this time of much need."

The medical shield project in Romeo not only caught the eye of local media, the team got a shout out from actor John Krasinski of The Office on his Some Good News (SGN) program on YouTube. It’s a cool pat on the back for a group of kids who are learned something more than just reading, writing and arithmetic.

"We’re all kind of stuck at home and it’s a nice thing to take their minds off what is going on," said Savage. "The thing I’m most proud of is how the kids and the parents all stepped up, and how the community has embraced our effort. Just people wanting to help."


To learn more about Ford Fund’s response to COVID-19 and the ways you can help, visit fordfund.org/covid19.