Amy Spears

Project Lead the Way teacher Amy Spears poses with one of her ear saver mask head straps that she distributed throughout the local health care community.

When it comes to 2020 accessories, face masks have made a whopping impact on the daily ‘look’. But this accessory comes with its downfalls- especially for those in the healthcare industry who are required to wear masks for their entire shift and can suffer from raw and sore ears. One Troy Middle School engineering teacher heard of the problem, and spent her quarantine and summer helping with a solution. After extensive research and a mission to regain her 3D printer from her classroom, Project Lead the Way teacher Amy Spears 3D printed and distributed 200 ear-saver mask head straps to local health facilities and friends and 30 clear face masks for the Lincoln County school district.

The story starts with Spears being a teacher with Project Lead the Way (PLW) since 2017, and the fact that she keeps up with their online community.

“It’s STEM, big time STEM related, and is a national curriculum that really incorporates hands on learning with cooperative learning with students. so it basically focuses on all these key subjects- science math engineering.” said Spears, describing the organization.

When COVID hit and everyone was sent home, Spears noticed on the PLW twitter page a lot of other engineering teachers posting about printing these ear saver mask head straps. Lincoln County Health Department had also sent out a request asking that anyone with 3D printers print the design. 

Spears got a 3D printer for her engineering classes 2 years ago after applying for a GE grant, and with permission from principal Kelly Briscoe, Spears retrieved the printer from the classroom and set up shop in her basement. 

“And then I went into research mode. I don’t really need to take the time to design it myself if I can find it already out there that’s a good design.” Spears said, describing her process. “At that time there was already a variety, probably 3-4 designs right away and I could tell that some were better than others.”

Once she found a design she believed would work best, Spears sent out prototypes to friends and former students all over the US, asking for feedback. The response was overwhelming approval and gratitude.

“Everyone said “yeah this is good because it’s large enough.’ Because that was the problem with some of the designs out there, they were smaller, so then the struggle was that it was pulling the mask tighter on the head which wasn’t good.”

Spears ended up printing around 200 of the face mask accessories, sending them to Lincoln Health Department, Washington University, and other friends and connections she thought of or who asked for them. 

“The coolest feedback I received was from a friend I graduated from high school with who works at Siteman Cancer Center at the front desk. I reached out to ask how she was doing and if she needed one. She sent me a picture of all the things she had tried, and actually one of the other ear savers that had been 3D printed and given to her which was the shorter one.” Spears said, “And she said ‘oh my goodness Amy yours is great’, and then when she showed me the picture of her wearing it, I turned to my husband and said ‘oh my goodness, no wonder. Here is someone who is having to wear their mask, one of those mic things, and has to wear goggles. So that is 3 things putting pressure down on that right ear.’ so no wonder that’s painful! Like, that’s too much. So she was very very appreciative and I sent more to them because she had colleagues who were like ‘yes please’.”

Once Spears got a handle on the ear savers, she could print between 10-12 a day at about 1 ½ hours for each print, the Lincoln County School District reached out and asked if she could print clear face masks. At first Spears wasn’t sure the project was something her printer was capable of, but through research found that a European company that produced the masks for commerce had released their design to help during the pandemic.

I did the research, I’ll be honest, because that’s what makes the difference. I didn’t just find one and print it and move on with life. I found one and was like ‘okay’, and then found another one and was ‘like okay I like that about that, but don’t like that about that,’ and kept doing the research until I found what I thought was best.” Spears said, laughing a bit as she acknowledged “That is the phrase you will hear me say before I jump into a project- okay let me do the research, to see what’s going to be the best or how to best tackle this and then I will go full fledged into making it happen.”

Spears made 30 face masks from a plastic head piece that took 5 ½ hours to print and old transparency sheets accumulated from her 20 years of teaching. Spears, who teaches 6th, 7th, and 8th grade engineering classes, is already using her experiences as lessons.

“I shared with students as a way of showing them the real life application to what we study. 6th grade is all about energy and the environment. In 7th grade we big time study 3D design. Learn how to sketch isometrically. Draw accurately. The importance of measurement. Big time with them. So I made a video, saying hey guys this is what I’ve been doing, this is how i’ve been helping.” Spears said.

The PLW teacher expressed fascination with the potential lessons and opportunities that she can teach in an engineering class during COVID.

“There’s going to be things that we can’t predict right now that we’re going to get into the classroom and go ‘ooh, we need to do this. Ooh’. And it’s one of those things where as an engineering teacher I can put problems like that out to my students and say ‘okay here’s a real life problem what do we do guys. What do we do, how do we solve this?’”

Spears claims she has always been a STEM girl, and since starting her teaching career in 2000 has taught multiple math and science classes at the middle school and high school level. The main reason she loves PLW is because the curriculum is hands on and project based, as well as very teacher friendly as the organization offers training on how to teach the classes. 

“These classes exist to introduce students to a field that they might not have known existed. It’s not a guarantee that everyone will love it, but maybe they discover that hey this is what I want to do! at least now they know that STEM is an option for the future.” Spears said, “I watch girls come into my 8th grade robotics class and think they’re going to hate that class but are the ones that love it the most.”

As the school year approaches, Spears said she definitely hopes COVID goes away so she can have more in class time over remote teaching.

“This is my quote all the time when outside of education people ask me ‘oh what do you do?’, and I’m like ‘I teach fun’, and they look at me and I’ll be fine ‘you want a different answer I teach engineering to middle school students sooooo.’” Spears said, “I get to encourage kids to try, and I tell them all the time ‘you’re going to fail. Like whatever project we’re working on you’re going to have failure times. So what do you do when you get to that mistake? Do you just quit? No! You problem solve and you figure out ‘what do I need to do differently’. And that’s the part that i love. I love watching kids think through things and try and then go ‘okay well that didn’t work’, and then they’ll give me their idea like ‘do you think this will work?’

“And I’m like ‘try it’. I tell them ‘I would be a bad engineering teacher if I told you for sure yes that’s going to work or no that’s not going to work. The whole point of my job is to encourage them and when they come up with these ideas it’s a safe place for them to try out this learning and see what happens.”