Four Spring Lake Park High Schoolers wearing their designed face masks

Face masks. They have quickly become a standard part of daily life along with their problems – from discomfort to inconvenience. The popular high school class, “How To Make Almost Anything,” took on the COVID-timely face mask in their first design project of the year. Students were tasked with creating face mask prototypes that meet both health and safety guidelines while also addressing comfort, aesthetic and everyday wear considerations.

“The How to Make Almost Anything class is for any student in grades 9-12,” says SLPHS STEM teacher Karen Kutz. “The class is hands-on and designed for students to identify a real-world challenge and develop practical solutions using innovation and technology. Because face masks are such a relevant, everyday part of our students’ lives now, we decided to have our first unit focus on identifying the challenging aspects of face masks and then finding solutions.”

A main focus throughout this course is introducing students to the initial foundations of engineering and having them work through the SLP 3D Design Process, which includes following the three “D’s”:

  • Discover: Students individually evaluated the features of a face mask and assessed how they thought it worked and fit. They then worked with a team to brainstorm different problems face masks posses.
  • Design:  As a team, students then brainstormed possible solutions to solve the problems they identified. They each selected their own solution and worked individually to create a design plan and prototype of their masks. Prototypes were made at home with supplies from the classroom – fabric, soft elastic, metal nose piece – and any other materials they had access to.
  • Deliver: Students shared their mask, design and improvement process on Flipgrid, a video sharing platform, with class peers and gave each other feedback on their designs.

Mask Prototype Designs

Ninth grader Emmy Susanka identified her problem as having to take a mask off completely in order to take a drink of water.

“I chose to solve this problem because even in those few seconds when a person’s mask is off, they could be exposed to whatever is in the air,” says Emmy.

To create a face mask that addresses this common issue, Emmy designed a mask with a hole cut over the mouth area with another piece of fabric covering the hole that is attached with Velcro. In her Flipgrid video, she explains how a person can easily and quickly open the flap, take a drink and then close the flap in a shorter and safer amount of time than having to take the mask off completely.

When asked how she could improve her design, Emmy said she would use a zipper in place of the Velcro, which theoretically would let in less air when closed than the Velcro piece of fabric.

For ninth grader Isaiah Frei, a problem he wanted to address is how masks can make having conversations challenging. In his Flipgrid video, he stresses the importance of staying safe while also still being able to communicate effectively.

“Wearing a mask muffles your voice and makes conversation a lot more difficult and not as productive,” says Isaiah. “They also potentially make you yell too much and strain your voice. A couple ideas our group brainstormed for this problem was making a thinner mask so sound can easier pass through, a mask with a microphone and speaker and a clear mask to help read lips for easier communication.”

For his individual prototype, Isaiah decided to design a mask with a microphone, speaker and volume dial, which he 3D printed and glued on the mask. After evaluating his design, he said he could improve his mask by making the different pieces attach and detach magnetically so one could add the pieces to different masks and to make the mask washable.

Overall, I think students did a great job of understanding the design process, which is important in today’s world, especially in STEM-related fields. They brainstormed a variety of mask-related problems, found innovative solutions and then looked for improvements afterwards, which is exactly what we hope they are getting out of this class. Karen Kutz