University of Minnesota: Students step up to produce masks for hospitals

The scarcity of N95 masks to protect hospital workers from COVID-19 has occupied headlines since the outbreak of the pandemic—hoarders of the masks have been busted, stockpiles have been donated, and volunteers have scrambled to develop alternatives.

Driven by this acute need, faculty from the University of Minnesota’s College of Design, College of Science of Engineering, and Medical School worked together to create two face mask designs that could be quickly assembled using readily available materials.

While the innovative designs for the “MNmask” may be owed to faculty, the production of the masks came down to nearly 60 undergraduate and graduate student volunteers across the U of M.

For three weeks, the second floor of McNeal Hall on the Twin Cities’ St. Paul campus was segmented, taped off, and sanitized to facilitate an assembly line of students dedicated to the cause.

Colleen Pokorny (apparel studies), a research assistant in the Human Dimensioning Lab, helped devise the effort’s layout, capacity, and safety measures.

“This included everything from mapping out physical locations of production steps, working through supplies required, and timing production steps, to determining capacity and how to implement social distancing,” says Pokorny.

Volunteer safety remained the top priority throughout the process, with precautions ranging from hand sanitizer and PPE to staggered lunch breaks and physical distancing.

Even with all of the precautions, the students were aware they were taking a risk.

Product design major Anna Marie Mitchell weighed the potential danger against her urge to participate.

“I was one of many students who were getting frustrated with sitting at home, absorbing a constant stream of terrible news without much outlet. I felt like getting involved would be a real, tangible thing I could do to help in some small way,” says Mitchell.

Beyond contributing to the cause, Mitchell appreciated the comfort of company—even at a distance.

“As simple as it is, one of the best parts of this job has been the ability to talk to other people in real life,” she says.

With production closed and 5,000 fresh masks ready for the front lines, the students are proud of their efforts.

“It’s been amazing to see how much support there is for this project across the University,” says Pokorny.