By: Loren Strong

Senior Design class prepares students in textile engineering and textile technology to become innovative problem solvers. It also shows that knowledge, creativity and teamwork go a long way in meeting any challenge.

In a pandemic year marked by near-constant disruption, senior textile engineering and textile technology students continued the Wilson College tradition of Senior Design in a most MacGyver-like way. They developed an effective face mask – using just 14 items and overcoming built-in project limitations designed to make the assignment more challenging.

In only a week, 14 teams had developed a prototype with filtration efficacy on par with a surgical mask as they competed for first, second and third place honors. 

“Each year we start Senior Design with a week-long mini-project to get teams inspired and energized,” said Amanda Mills, Senior Design project coordinator and Nano-EXtended Textiles (NExt) fusion designer of the Wilson College of Textiles. “The Senior Design mini-project is meant to serve as a ‘crash course’ in design and as a way for students to get to know those in their team.”

In previous years, students created an innovative product for an impoverished community with two rice bags and a $10 budget as part of the Rice Bag Challenge project. Sponsored by Rise Against Hunger, students received feedback from the organization on the utilization of their products to produce a plethora of designs, which ranged from bookbags to sandals. 

Transition to 2020 and the world has become familiar with wearing comfortable and sometimes uncomfortable face masks for protection during the COVID-19 pandemic. The Senior Design mini-project served as an opportunity for students to leverage their educational knowledge from the last three years into a challenging, hands-on project that prompted them to think outside the box. Their think-and-do spirit was challenged when tasked to create a face mask within one week and a limited budget.   

Over the course of a week, students planned, prototyped and created mask designs in both virtual and in-person settings. As Mills explained, this year’s mini-project was a deviation of the ‘Next-gen Facemask’ XPRIZE competition. Students were charged to develop a novel face mask with filtration efficacy on par with a surgical mask and address 5 of the top 10 reasons that people do not wear them. These potential criteria sought to overcome an array of difficulties, including discomfort, the tendency for masks to fog up glasses and the inability to see people’s lips as they spoke. In addition, students were limited to using only the materials provided and developing a ‘no-sew’ to allow for automation.

The limitations and novelty of this year’s challenge did not disrupt creativity. All 14 student teams were able to make unique mask designs that tackled the limitations of existing masks.

While the process of creating a mask in the era of social distancing did not infringe on creativity, it did require some adaptation. Some found the transition from in-person meetings to Zoom to be relatively seamless, and all in-person meetings were kept brief and infrequent. Other teams completed their project with little to no in-person interaction at all, relying totally on Zoom and other virtual technologies.

Cristina Guillen Diaz, Kitty McKay and Vince Varju of Team 12 landed first place with their ‘Safe Face‘ mask. Concerned with meeting the need to see facial expressions clearly, this team realized that they could use the Ziploc bags that contained the materials. This sort of quick and novel thinking was a fresh experience for the team.

“I learned how to ideate on the fly,” said Varju.  

In addition to meeting their chosen criteria – which included the tendency for masks to fit faces poorly and difficulty with eating and drinking – the team members were inspired by their own experiences with masks.  For example, Diaz pointed out how difficult it was to pull a mask over afro-styled hair, a revelation that led to the incorporation of baseball-hat-like Velcro to Team 12’s mask design.  

Team 10 members Emilie Phan, Devlin Santos and Susie Xu based their second-place ‘2M: Modular Mask’ design on research of Korean and CDC-approved face masks. Their winning mask was inspired by the criteria they selected, which included the tendency for existing masks to be too hot, to fog up glasses and to create difficulty to breathe in.  “I quickly learned to adapt a fail-fast mentality,” said Phan – learning to work efficiently with a finite amount of time and materials.  

Sara Abushakra, Molly Campbell, Reed Cannon and Jackson Young of Team 3 secured third place with their novel Bearded Bill Mask. This two-part design not only enabled a secure, comfortable fit but redirected the wearer’s breath to avoid problems such as breathing difficulty, glass fogging  and facial pain.

Against all odds, the 2020 Senior Design mini-project was wildly successful. Several students commented that the unusual circumstances of this year’s project taught them to not only be ready to adapt but the importance and necessity of teamwork as well.  While the future of Senior Design projects is not entirely clear, it is bound to be informed by the success of this year’s contest. “We hope to see a mixture of the two,” said Mills.