In the Classroom: Engineering Against COVID

In response to the current pandemic, students enrolled in SBS’s Engineering and Innovation spent the fall trimester working together to create realistic ways to help stop the spread of COVID-19. The class, taught by our new STEM Director Gene Murphy, allows students to get hands-on engineering experience and encourages them to be creative in the way they solve real-world problems.

“When the average person thinks of creativity, they often think of art or music,” said senior Zida Anyachebelu, “but it takes so much creativity to be a good engineer—and I love the intersection between those two areas.”

One of the primary projects students spent the fall working on revolved around the use of UV-C light—the most energetic and damaging of ultraviolet lights—to safely destroy the virus’ RNA. In order to do this in a way that does not expose anyone to harmfully powerful light, Mr. Murphy and his students came up with an implementable solution. By mounting a UV-C light bulb, bookended by fans, inside of a pipe, the mechanism is able to pull in potentially contaminated air and then expel sterilized air on the other side. According to research and careful calculations, the UV-C light should be able to destroy the virus’ chemical makeup. While the idea was clear to the group, getting a successful finished product wasn’t as easy. 

“We had to design a lightbulb holder that we could 3D print, but we ended up redesigning it multiple times,” said junior Jeryl Ho. “Getting it structurally strong and making sure every piece fit properly took a lot of reworking and redoing, but we didn’t give up—and it ended up coming out just the way we envisioned.”

If the project is a total success, the school hopes to install the system in one of the building’s HVAC systems, thus lowering the potential contraction of the virus by sterilizing the circulating air.

“Students have been working tirelessly on this project,” said Mr. Murphy. “Many of the roadblocks they’ve encountered have been discouraging, but they’re learning that there’s always a solution if you keep on trying.”

In addition to this project, students have also been working to create a standard particle filtration system and a hands-free mask dispenser. For the filtration system, students came up with the idea to use materials they already had—regular, surgical masks—and sew them together to make one large filter.

“We wanted to find different, more sophisticated materials, but then we realized we had exactly what we needed right in front of us,” said Gemma O’Neill. “This class, and this project in particular, has shown me that there are many alternate routes that can bring you to the same destination. You just need to put your own creative spin on whatever you do.”

The hands free mask dispenser has proved to be the most difficult of the projects. The goal of the project is to create a system that can dispense surgical masks without having to touch the entire stack. The class is working on developing a vacuum based system, since once the mask is separated from the stack, it is relatively easy to dispense the mask in a hands free way.

“As with everything in life, there’s going to be countless ways you could fail,” said Cole Spier, “But there’s also countless ways you can succeed. When we’re learning by doing, failure is extremely effective in helping us grow our skills as an engineer.”

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