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Glenelg High School robotics club redirects focus to making masks, face shields during coronavirus pandemic

When Glenelg High School senior Jena Ialongo first saw the number, she thought it was a joke.

Earlier this month, Ray Gerstner, an engineering teacher at Glenelg and one of the advisers for the school’s robotics club, contacted Jena and her Robotiators teammates via email to issue a daunting challenge: pull together as a group to make a combined 888 face masks and face shields to contribute to the fight against the coronavirus.

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“Honestly, when he said 888, I thought he was insane. None of us had done anything like this before and that’s a really big number,” said Jena, a co-captain for the team this year.

“But once I actually sat down and made a few masks that first day, and then I saw some others start joining in, I realized maybe we could actually do this. I think the whole team aspect of it is huge for us because we’ve seen the amazing things we can do when everyone chips in and does their part.”

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Since the endeavor officially began April 3, the Robotiators are already a third of the way toward their lofty goal with just over 450 total items made as of Monday. The face shields are being made using 3D printers and the masks via sewing machines, all produced inside the homes of those with access to the necessary tools.

Others on the team without printers or sewing machines have contributed by donating materials so those making pieces can continue uninterrupted.

The push nationwide for protective personal equipment continues to soar, as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has recommended individuals wear “cloth face coverings in public settings where other social distancing measures are difficult to maintain,” according to its website. Face shields have also been in high demand as primary equipment for medical professionals.

With a large contingent of multi-talented high school students who suddenly have a little extra time on their hands, Gerstner decided it was time to get their creative juices flowing and contribute to the cause.

As for the goal of 888? Well, that was an easy choice.

“When a school first starts a [robotics] team, they are assigned a team number and for Glenelg that number was 888," he said. “So when I started thinking about a goal for this project, I said, ‘Let’s go with a number that means something to us and set that bar high.’”

Gerstner added, with a laugh, “We’re just lucky that the team started back in 2002 when the team numbers were fairly low. … Now the teams are getting assigned numbers up near 10,000.”

Just getting going

Gerstner has seen firsthand over the years how the members of the robotics club thrive when faced with a tall task.

Each January, as “the build” begins on the competition robot for that year, the team meets six to seven days a week after school and on weekends. Gerstner said team members will spend more than 2,000 hours together in the shop over a two-month span working on its project.

The team qualified for the world championship in 2018 and, based on early results this spring, appeared well on its way to achieving similar success with this year’s robot. The Robotiatiors won their first regional competition in Bethesda in early March and were ranked sixth in the FIRST Chesapeake District.

The Glenelg robotics team poses for a photo together after winning the FIRST Chesapeake District Bethesda regional event in early March.
The Glenelg robotics team poses for a photo together after winning the FIRST Chesapeake District Bethesda regional event in early March. (HANDOUT/photo courtesy of Glenelg Robotiators)

“We were off to our best start in the nine years that I’ve been at Glenelg,” Gerstner said. “As far as I know, we hadn’t won a competition like that since 2002.”

Just as the team was preparing for its second competition on March 13, it was announced schools were closing in response to the coronavirus pandemic and the season was being put on hold.

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“It was definitely disappointing because of the work we put in and also because we had a really strong robot,” Jena said. “Obviously we understand why things have been canceled, but it’s still tough, especially being a co-captain and a senior. It was hard going nonstop like we were and then having it all of a sudden end.”

A new focus

Gerstner got word April 1 there was interest from the Howard County Board of Education in utilizing the 3D printers that the county’s high schools have at their disposal to contribute to the drive to produce face shield parts. He said he wasted no time springing into action.

“I started making calls that morning around 9 a.m. and by early that afternoon we had the printers and were making our first [shield],” Gerstner said.

Coordinating with Glenelg Principal David Burton, county Coordinator of Career and Technology Education Sharon Kramer and the custodial staff at the high school, Gerstner was able to secure three of the Glenelg engineering department’s 3D printers. Two came home with him and the other went with fellow teacher and club adviser Nick Formica.

Gerstner and Formica immediately got to work, utilizing the open-source design developed by Prusa Labs in the Czech Republic to begin the first trial runs. Once they realized they could successfully complete the task, things took off.

Coordinating with We the Builders and Open Works in Baltimore, individuals can send in these finished parts to be assembled into face shields and then distributed to the appropriate health care organizations. It takes a little less than four hours to complete a shield piece on the 3D printers Gerstner has, meaning with two going simultaneously and no hiccups, it’s possible to complete eight a day (four from each).

It wasn’t long, though, before he started thinking bigger and decided to enlist some help.

Everyone doing their part

Glenelg sophomore Ryan Cather has a pair of 3D printers of his own at home, typically using them to “create parts and fix small, everyday things.” He estimates using them roughly once a week on a regular basis and had plans to fine-tune each of them in the weeks following schools being closed.

Then came the message from Gerstner, and Ryan had the push he needed.

“I was kind of dragging my feet, but once I realized we needed them to make these shields, I was able to get them going and ready,” said Ryan, who is the systems lead on the robotics team.

“I think I needed something like this after sitting at home for two weeks, being away from the team and not really doing much. It’s a chance to rally our forces and do some good for the community.”

Ryan said he’s been able to make roughly three shields a day since he started, pushing his total personal contribution into double digits. He and senior Matt Porter are the two Robotiators with home 3D printers at their disposal.

While Jena knew she and the rest of her teammates didn’t have the means to help with face shields, she and others quickly decided they would contribute to the cause by making face masks. Interested in sewing since middle school, Jena said she finally had a reason to get out her grandmother’s machine and rekindle an old hobby.

“I am able to sew pretty quickly and I think I made 15 the first day. Since then, I’ve been making between 12 and 13 a day,” she said, “basically working from the time I wake up until dinner.”

The cloth masks, which meet the CDC guidelines, are made following instructions available online on the University of Maryland Medical Center website. Jena said the fabric for most of her masks so far has come from old bed sheets.

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The team eclipsed 100 total pieces last week and made their first drop-off April 9, delivering more than 300 personal protective equipment items. The face shields parts went to Open Works for assembly and the masks went to the University of Maryland Medical Center.

Gerstner said one of the most exciting things is seeing new people joining in each day, including alumni.

Individuals from other schools around the county are joining in on the effort as well, including members of the robotics programs at Atholton, Centennial and Mount Hebron high schools.

Among the Glenelg club’s core focuses each year, aside from building a successful robot, is to exhibit cooperation and a willingness to help others outside of the team; the Robotiators routinely win the Gracious Professionalism award at competitions.

Now they are getting a chance to execute that side of the mission on a grander scale.

“It’s been a humbling experience in a lot of ways, seeing so many people willing to chip in any way they can. It seems like every day we get a few more people that want to be a part of this,” Gerstner said.

“This has been a very different robotics season for the kids. It certainly hasn’t played out how any of us expected, but in its own way, being able to pull together like they have, they are still making it a special one.”

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