HOUSTON – From fashion designers to self-taught sewers, manufacturers to tinkerers, makers of all sorts are pitching in to address a nationwide shortage of personal protective equipment. Now, a team of Houston educators are among those stepping into the breach.
As Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner calls on individuals and businesses to donate much-needed personal protective gear, Mehmet Gokcek, an engineering and technology curriculum coordinator with Harmony Public Schools Innovation Lab, and a group of his colleagues are rushing to produce face shields and medical supplies for Houston-area health-care workers and first responders on the front lines in the fight against COVID-19.
Gokcek said he remembers reading alarming accounts of crowded hospitals, overburdened healthcare workers and medical supply shortages in Italy.
“The first time we started hearing the news about the pandemic going crazy in Italy,” Gokcek said, “it was just unimaginable to think that a similar level of crisis could happen in the United States since we are thousands and thousands of miles away, but once we started hearing news about the confirmed cases in the United States it just started becoming this reality and it just became more real every day.”
Gokcek knew he and his colleagues had the resources to help combat any local shortages that could arise as cases in the area increased and after about two days researching and designing, the group printed a face-shield prototype using a 3-D printer.
“I just felt helpless sitting at home just praying things don’t get worse than they already are,” Gokcek said.”Once we started prototyping, producing, delivering, and I can speak for my colleagues as well, it just gave us this empowerment of being able to contribute to the fight.”
Enthused with their ingenuity, Harmony officials gave the team carte blanche to manufacture more protective medical gear and equipment. Within a couple days, the team had cranked out 44 plastic face shields, which they’ve since donated to Harris County.
Each face shield takes roughly five hours to manufacture and costs around $1 to make. Presently, the funds to fabricate the face shields currently come out of the school’s budget.
Early on, sourcing raw materials emerged as a challenge for Gokcek, who said a for-profit company bought out the plastics supply he had relied on.
“It’s tough as a public school system competing against these for-profit companies who are building these masks and putting them on the market,” Gokcek said.
While the team searches for more industrial-grade shield materials, they’re moving forward with the production of their face shields, using PVC transparent binding covers in lieu of the raw materials they can’t presently obtain.
The team is working around the clock printing parts for face shields and developing prototypes for other personal protective gear and medical equipment.
“I feel like we’re supporting the troops,” Gokcek said. “I feel like our soldiers in this global fight against this pandemic, this horrible disease are first responders and healthcare professionals. They are the soldiers. They are the troops in the first line of defense.”
Harmony alumni and interns Imran Abubakar, Ahmet Karagoz and Muntazir Panjwani assist Gokcek, maintaining the Innovation Lab’s 3-D printing farm. When they’re away from the lab, they continue their work at home, developing prototypes and manufacturing personal protective gear using borrowed 3-D printers.
“They have brought in a special set of skills to turn this amazing initiative into reality,” Gokcek said. “They are all engineering students at the University of Houston. There is still school and assignments but hearing out my call for help, they came out of the safety of their homes to help me kick off this wonderful endeavor.”
Following Gokcek’s lead, the school system is ramping up efforts to put similar manufacturing efforts in place at Harmony schools across the state, hoping to conduct a statewide effort to address medical gear and equipment shortages. Recently, Gokcek conducted a training session via Zoom. Over one hundred Harmony educators listened in.
“It just gives you this sense of community, this sense of helping each other and making sure that those on the front lines of this war against the COVID-19 pandemic are receiving the help that they deserve and the protection that they deserve," Gokcek said.
Do you want to help Gokcek and his fellow Harmony educators?
The public charter school system is accepting donations of raw materials. Additionally, Gokcek encourages anyone with a 3-D printer to fabricate personal protective gear for Houston-area first responders and healthcare workers. For information on how to manufacture protective gear using a 3-D printer, contact Gokcek at email@example.com.
“We need to pull together everything we have at our disposal, come together as a community to make sure nurses, doctors, paramedics, firefighters, police officers have the necessary protective equipment to continue this fight. I don’t even want to think about the consequences of losing this fight.”
And for anyone without a 3-D printer or the means to donate raw materials, Gokeck asks them to pray for those on the frontlines of the pandemic.
“We just ask them to pray for healthcare professionals and first responders so that they can be protected,” Gokcke said. “If they’re not there to care for COVID-19 patients then we’re definitely going to lose this fight.”
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