The Blue Ridge University of Arizona 4-H Fab Lab is joining the fight against COVID-19 by making personal protection equipment and prototypes of new designs for ventilator parts.
A partnership between 4-H and the Blue Ridge Unified School District in Navajo County, the fabrication laboratory, or Fab Lab, includes a collection of digital fabrication equipment and electronics platforms normally available for use by students and community members.
The lab opened in 2018 after Kevin Woolridge, a science and math teacher at Blue Ridge High School, and Navajo County Extension Director Steve Gouker had the idea to integrate science, technology, engineering and math programming into the county 4-H program.
This week, Woolridge, Gouker and two students – observing social distancing guidelines – started working on face shields, and they hope to have about 300 finished by the weekend to give to the Whiteriver Indian Hospital on the Fort Apache Indian Reservation.
"I'm ecstatic to help," Woolridge said. "We are all forced to be at home, social distancing right now. It's helping to focus our energies, and to do something like this – actually making a difference to help keep our health professionals and first responders safe – we're very excited to do this."
"In addition to doing online school during the school closure, the 4-H physics and engineering students are also helping to ensure that our first responders, medical professionals and community have the equipment and supplies they need to stay safe," Woolridge said. "The students are using online platforms to design, then prototype, alternatives to the existing supply chain and national shortages. Our students are gaining real-life experience with digital fabrication and biomedical engineering."
In addition to the face shields, Woolridge and his team, using the Fab Lab's 3D printer, have also fabricated a prototype of an H-tube – a ventilator part that would allow one ventilator to be used for four patients in case of an emergency shortage.
Through an online working group called AZ Makers Fighting COVID-19, Woolridge connected with University of Arizona Health Sciences physicians and scientists to test the prototype using artificial lungs.
"There is not an acute need for an H-connector right now, but we started the conversation because everybody in the U.S. will be hit by a shortage assuming the current state of affairs and the supply chain disruptions continue. There just aren't enough ventilators," said Bijun Kannadath, a research assistant professor in the Department of Internal Medicine at the College of Medicine – Phoenix. "We are doing in vitro testing to investigate the potential usage and see if it's a feasible alternative, but hopefully we don't need it. It is better to have it and not need it, than to need it and not have it."
The Blue Ridge UArizona 4-H Fab Lab was the first in the nation organized as a partnership between 4-H and a school district. Through an investment from University of Arizona Cooperative Extension – the umbrella under which Arizona 4-H operates – and donations of over $600,000 worth of technology, the lab opened in January 2018.
"The 4-H Fab Lab serves as an excellent example of our Cooperative Extension mission delivery, which is basically to bring the university to the people of the state of Arizona and bring science to bear on practical problems," said Jeff Silvertooth, associate dean and director of UArizona Cooperative Extension.
"Credit for the lab credit goes to the progressive thinking and actions by Mr. Steve Gouker, 4-H agent and Navajo County Extension director and Mr. Kevin Woolridge, who developed the concept and partnerships with the local school district, Navajo County and private sector entities," Silvertooth said. "The initial investment provided by the Arizona Cooperative Extension system is paying tremendous dividends in successful education of 4-H students and the new partnerships that are being formed with projects like this with the University of Arizona Health Sciences."
While students continue to work on projects virtually, Gouker says he looks forward to when kids are back in the lab.
"When this crisis is over, kids will be back here learning about how to make all kinds of things – things that save lives, and make the world a better place."