Tech Teacher, Protégé Producing PPE With Fraser Woods Gear, Donated Materials
There is a oft-quoted saying about learning to fish.
But in the case of tech educator Danielle Ulacco, learning how to use a 3D printer has provided an opportunity for her to furnish hundreds of pieces of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) that is being distributed to responders in Newtown and front line medical personnel across the tri-state region.
The same can be said for one of her plucky students, who made similar good use from one of her Fraser Woods Montessori School sewing machines.
As Ulacco related in a recent chat with The Newtown Bee, “One of my 6th grade MakerSpace students, Nadia Andrew, learned how to sew in our MakerSpace, [which] creates conditions to inspire our middle schoolers and guides them to a place of innovation, inquiry, and passion.”
Ulacco explained that classes give students endless opportunities for hands-on prototyping, crafting, and building. This classroom also promotes solving real-world problems through a Design Thinking Process.
“Once school closed, Nadia asked me if she could bring one of my sewing machines home and she started sewing masks,” Ulacco said. “She was getting ready to donate the 40 masks that she sewed all by herself and that’s when I shared with her that I am making mask extenders to relieve ear pain. I gave her a few to try and she was enamored by them.”
So Nadia’s family and Ulacco decided to partner — with the teacher supplying 3D printed extenders to accompany her student’s home-sewn masks.
“Empathy has been a focus of our curriculum in MakerSpace and STEAM classes,” Ulacco said. “Understanding what empathy is, how to design something entirely unselfishly, and why empathy is so important in the world of creating and making, has been the main focus of my teaching.”
The local educator said she never imagined one of her students would take this “lesson” so seriously.
Filling A Need
Apparently another saying about apples not falling far from the tree could apply to teachers and students, particularly in this case, as Ulacco is utilizing Fraser Woods equipment with the school’s blessing.
For over ten years she has been teaching around the area, settling in most recently at the local Montessori School.
“When we closed because of the COVID emergency, I was planning on taking one of the 3D printers home so students could continue developing designs and I could continue printing them,” she said.
But after talking with a friend who is a nurse at Columbia Presbyterian Hospital in New York, Ulacco learned that there is a lot of discomfort being felt by the many front line medical staffers who are required to wear protective masks, sometimes for grueling 12-plus hour shifts.
“So in doing a little research in my 3D world, I found a growing number of makers were creating these 3D mask extenders,” Ulacco said. “So I downloaded the design and printed her about 50 and she was amazed at the difference they made.”
One of the selfies her nurse friend took of the mask extenders also showed her wearing a plastic face shield.
“Then I started Googling plastic face shields, and I found some approved designs on line, and started 3D printing them as well,” she said.
Then it was just a matter of figuring out where the newly produced shields might do the most good, and she reached Newtown Police Lt Aaron Bahamonde, who was a Fraser Woods parent.
He, in turn, put Ulacco in touch with Newtown Emergency Management Director and Sandy Hook Fire Chief Bill Halstead.
“So I connected with Bill, and he said yes — the town would love to have some of the shields,” she said. “So first I make the headpiece and frame, then I use a hole punch to make the holes in the clear plastic face covers, then I just snap them together.”
Originally, Ulacco only had around 40 plastic sheets to make a few dozen shields, until a kind donor heard about the effort.
“Suddenly there was this donor at my house handing over 1,000 sheets of clear plastic. Now I have the capability to make around 1,000 shields,” Ulacco said. “In about 94 minutes I can produce and assemble a completed shield — and with two printers pretty much running constantly, I can produce extenders with one and the shield pieces out of the other, unless the shield demand increases.”
Empathy And Compassion
In a note accompanying Nadia’s masks and the extenders and shields from Ulacco to Newtown Deputy Emergency Management Director Maureen Will, the student wrote: “I came up with the idea to make masks when I heard what both my aunts were going through on the front lines. One is an anesthesiologist working in New York and the other is a nurse working in Massachusetts.
“I thought that I could help by making masks to give to immune compromised people, elders in the community, and anyone else who needed them,” Nadia continued. “The idea was to help make sure that people were not buying the PPE equipment that the healthcare workers needed.”
The student explained how Ulacco let her borrow a sewing machine and gave her all the fabric she needed to sew the donated masks.
“My mom just purchased elastic from Chintz and Prints and I started sewing right away,” she added. “Soon after I found out that you were collecting masks. So I decided to donate them to you to help hospital and EMS workers in need.
“I will continue to make more masks.”
While Ulacco frequently produced small usable items from 3D printers, the Fraser Woods tech teacher said she never designed and produced anything that could actually help save lives.
“I preach to my students every day that this is the world they’re going to live in, and we stress how everything needs to be empathy driven and compassionate. And now here I am at home with a couple of 3D printers walking the walk,” she said with a laugh.
Ulacco said she could not remember a time when she was not fascinated by technology, and as a result she was one of the first kids among her friends to get her own computer. By high school she was coding websites and helping her friends and their family members troubleshoot hardware and teaching them how to better use the technology.
“I never thought I’d have a future career as a Makerspace teacher, but none of my friends were surprised at all,” she said. “They all say ‘You were always the one fixing my printer or uninstalling viruses on my laptop,’ so they all saw me as someone who was tech literate.”
With Ulacco and Nadia Andrew already making such contributions, it is exciting to imagine what all the other Fraser Woods Makerspace students will go on to achieve.
“Just when I thought I had achieved a huge milestone in helping my community, I was given the opportunity to work alongside one of my students and truly share the joy of giving and helping together,” Ulacco said. “This has been the greatest reward.”