Maintaining a sufficient supply of protective face masks is one of the most pressing needs for health-care personnel working on the front lines during the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic.

Across the nation, many people have pitched in to help by sewing masks.

A group of central Ohio high school students is using start-of-the-art technology and their ingenuity to help make the masks more effective.

Students from the FIRST Robotics teams at several local high schools are using 3D printers at home to make the masks using polylatic acid, a common filament plastic used for 3D printing, said Dr. Andy Bruening, director of bridge programs and director of the Center of Robotic Innovations at the PAST Foundation.

The foundation is a Columbus-based nonprofit educational and research team that offers professional development for teachers and STEM-based programs for students. PAST stands for Partnering Anthropology with Science and Technology.

Bruening has been working with Dublin Coffman High School computer science teacher Greg King to coordinate the project.

Both men serve as coaches for FIRST Robotics teams – Bruening at the Metro Early College High School and King at Coffman.

“We saw that there was a need for masks and we had the resources of 3D-printing technology available and all these kids sitting at home,” Bruening said. “So we reached out to students on our FIRST teams and other (robotics) teams in central Ohio to find out who had 3D printers at home and grabbed the printers we had at our schools that students could use.”

About 15 to 20 high students participating in the robotics teams in the Dublin, Grandview and Worthington school districts and at Metro Schools, St. Charles Preparatory School and Franklinton Preparatory Academy are part of the project, he said.

As of April 21, the students had created between 400 and 500 masks at home, Bruening said.

The students drop off their masks at the PAST Foundation; from there, they have been distributed to Delaware County EMS, OhioHealth, Nationwide Children’s Hospital and the Ohio State University Medical Center, he said.

Grandview Heights High School junior Blaine Lee used the 3D printer he had at home to make about 50 masks in two weeks.

“I’ve been 3D printing for a while. It’s kind of my hobby,” he said. “I was happy to be able to use the technology to make something that can help make a difference in the community. It gives you a good feeling to be able to do something helpful at this time.”

One of the problems students were facing was that, because 3D printing uses only hard plastic, the first masks they made did not have an airtight fit on people’s faces, Lee said.

EMS personnel were finding the masks slipping as they carried their equipment and transported patients, and some patients were having difficulty understanding them as they spoke through the masks, Bruening said.

“We all tried different ideas for solving the problem,” Lee said.

The solution students devised was to dunk the masks in nearly boiling water to make them more flexible so they would fit to match the shape of a person’s face, he said.

“One size fits all really doesn’t work as well,” Lee said.

“What’s really exciting to me about this project, beyond the students having the opportunity to give back to the community, is that they were able to use their problem-solving skills in a real-world situation,” Bruening said. “You can’t get any more real-world than this.”

What’s most fun about 3D printing is “the ability to take something that I’ve thought about in my head and turn it into a real product,” Lee said. “In this case, we’re turning out something that’s really useful, not just something that’s for fun.”

The project was partially funded with a $2,000 grant presented at the beginning of April to the PAST Foundation by ServeOhio, the state’s commission on service and volunteerism.

ServeOhio provides grants to support community services projects that are organized for four annual days of service: Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Global Youth Service Day in April, ServeOhio Day in June and Make a Difference Day in October.

“This year, we knew the typical type of group projects that are part of Global Youth Service Day wouldn’t be possible, so we decided to refocus those grants on projects that groups and organizations are doing to help in the COVID-19 crisis,” said ServeOhio outreach and education officer Rebeccah Verhoff-Kiss.

Thirty-six COVID-19 Community Resilience Grants totaling $62,387 were awarded in three rounds in late March and early April, she said.

“Usually, we offer about $65,000 in grants during an entire year, so we really went all out this time,” Verhoff-Kiss said.

The resilience grants “were very competitive,” with 260 applications submitted, she said.

The PAST Foundation’s project was unique among the applications, Verhoff-Kiss said.

“Most of the applications were for projects to help buy groceries or other supplies for people,” she said. “The PAST Foundation’s idea was really unusual because it has the students making something to help people.”

The grant money was used to help purchase materials for the project, Bruening said. Plastic and other materials also were donated by the various robotics teams and central Ohio companies.

The project will continue, he said, but with an added public component.

“With so much uncertainty about what next school year is going to look like, we’re going to be shifting to making masks that we will be able to distribute to the 27 school district (PAST) partners that students would be able to use, if needed, to attend class in their buildings,” Bruening said.