Creating PPE for Nurses and School Officials in Western North Carolina

STEMwork in western North Carolina (WNCSTEMwork) is a teacher professional development initiative of the Kenan Institute for Engineering, Technology, and Science at North Carolina State University. With ARC support, this program supports six middle and high school teachers from ten counties as they develop their capacity to lead and sustain STEM workforce education.

In April 2020, one WNCSTEMwork Kenan fellow decided to use the tools and skills he gained through his internship at TEAM Industries and give back to his community amidst COVID-19. Austin Hedden began printing 3D masks at Hayesville High School in Clay County to support the nurses and other leaders serving his school each day.

“[A] teacher in the school emailed me the idea and I knew it was something I wanted to tackle. I have watched our (school) nurses day in and day out take our temperatures prior to us loading [into] the buses to deliver meals and they mentioned having to reuse the same mask because supplies are so low,” said Hedden. “I knew that I had a blessing with the 3D printers in my classroom and I needed to put them to work.”

After printing, Hedden made sure school nurses were the first to receive supplies. Masks were then distributed to essential personnel such as school administrators, bus drivers, bus attendants, and other teachers on campus who are working to keep things running.

Hedden took action not only to help essential school workers prevent the spread of COVID-19, but also to protect his wife, who has a pre-existing heart condition. “These masks could mean the difference between life and death,” he said.

At TEAM, Hedden gained first-hand experience on manufacturing and development, and a better understanding of local industries which he is taking back to his students. “Too often I see students who possess the ‘I have already given up on life and I am only 15 years old’ mentality, but by opening their eyes to what is available around them, I have begun to see some lasting changes.” Introducing Appalachian students to available opportunities is critical to keep them in communities and contributing to the Region’s economic growth.

“[This fellowship] is a great opportunity for any educator in any part of the state, but especially in small communities like mine where building stronger ties between schools and businesses is critical to bolstering the economy and developing the local workforce… This makes me very excited to see how long I can… make a positive impact in my tiny, Appalachian community.”