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How a Small Tribal College Stepped up to Make Face Shields For Health Workers

Bay Mills Community College, a tribal college in Michigan, received a request from its community two weeks ago to make face masks for local workers providing key services during the coronavirus emergency. The school’s advanced manufacturing program got to work, designing a lightweight, reusable face shield.

Using 3D printing technology, they plan to produce 3,000 shields in three weeks. They’re already manufacturing them at a rate of about 150 per day. The face shields will go to eight local organizations – two hospitals, a health center, a fire department, a correctional facility, two police departments and a volunteer ambulance corps.Faceshield 1

“People are just amazed at the roll-out of this …” said Dr. Christopher Griffen, technical director at the Great Lakes Composite Institute and an instructor at Bay Mills Community College. “We were able to really put this out fast.”

It took “a lot of cooperation” to get the product “out the door and into the community as quickly as possible,” he added.

Leading a regional effort, Bay Mills Community College is collaborating with Eastern Upper Peninsula Intermediate School District teachers and Lake Superior State University staff. The three educational institutions are using their 3D printers to bring the face shields to life.

The scope of the project has already grown. The team started with a goal of 500 face shields, said Dr. Kimberly Muller, dean of Lake Superior State University’s College of Innovation and Solutions, but “the demand far exceeded that.”

Demand is likely to go up as COVID-19 cases climb. As of Monday afternoon, the state of Michigan had over 15,700 coronavirus cases and 617 deaths with workers in essential services scrambling for protective gear.

Muller’s university became involved when Bryan Newland, chair of the Bay Mills Indian Community, reached out. Now, university staff are manufacturing the headbands that hold the face shields on.

“We’re really proud to be a part of this project,” said Muller. “We like the fact that we’re able to use our skills and resources to support a community effort” and the “people who are on the front lines helping through the healthcare system.”

It’s unusual for a tribal college to have the resources to spearhead a manufacturing project of this size. Bay Mills Community College is one of five tribal colleges with an advanced manufacturing program, thanks to funding from the U.S. Department of Energy and the American Indian Higher Education Consortium, which distributed and managed the funds. Bay Mills received a two-year grant – for which Griffen is the principal investigator – to build its academic prowess in material sciences and technology as a part of the TCU Advanced Manufacturing Initiative.

Now the school’s Pre-Apprenticeship Center of Excellence offers a free one-year certificate program in advanced manufacturing, where Native American students learn to design models, test them and create a final product. The program began in the fall of last year and will soon graduate three students, though Griffen expects the program to grow over time.

“The importance of this is to get them ready before they even start looking for potential job opportunities,” Griffen said. “It puts them in a pretty good position to be competitive.”

Students are already hearing from companies about potential job offers.

“The opportunities have come to them,” he said. “They didn’t have to knock on doors.”

For tribal colleges and universities, having a program like this is no small feat. Many of these institutions lack basic internet technology, let alone virtual simulation tools for design and 3D printing capabilities.

It took Bay Mills Community College three years — and about a quarter of a million dollars — to get the necessary software in place to create a self-sufficient advanced manufacturing program, Griffen said.

Creating the certificate program wasn’t an “insurmountable task,” but tribal colleges “have to have that starting infrastructure,” he added. He hopes other tribal colleges can “glean what we have learned,” using programs like his as a model.

But funding is often the biggest barrier, and in the case of Bay Mills Community College, it offered a rare opportunity.

Without the grant that laid the foundation for his program, Bay Mills Community College couldn’t have built the face shields, Griffen said. It wouldn’t have had the technology, and “we wouldn’t have been able to service the community.”

Sara Weissman can be reached at [email protected]

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