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Engineering Vols Sew Support for Front-line Health Workers

The UT campus officially “went remote” following Spring Break 2020 in order to stem the tide of the COVID-19 pandemic. As our community adjusted to learning, teaching, and working from home, Engineering Vols also looked for ways to help those whose jobs put them on the front lines of the crisis: first responders, healthcare workers, and others whose services were needed.

One group of students, faculty, and staff had been diligently working on a prospective chapter of Engineers Without Borders (EWB) for the UT campus, which was officially approved in fall 2020. Their previously planned projects were put on hold until fall, so when they reconvened via Zoom, they looked for ways to contribute to the Volunteer response to the pandemic.

“Once we saw how many individuals and families did not have the means to get masks, we decided that we would sew masks and distribute them to free clinics and hospitals in the area,” said IE junior Kalina Scarbrough, who serves as president of the new EWB chapter.

Chemical engineering student Peter Cooper, then EWB treasurer and now the group’s community committee chair, pitched in and the two were able to sew and distribute 200 masks to Oak Ridge Hospital and to multiple free COVID-19 testing centers.

“I have a friend gracious enough to let me borrow their machine,” said Scarbrough. “I had never successfully sewn before, so Peter had to teach me once he learned. I have always been creative and artsy so it wasn’t too difficult to pick up.”

“My mom had a sewing machine and taught me how to use it a few years ago,” said Cooper. “But I had never done a sewing project of this scale before.”

Sewing might not be the first skill that comes to mind for an engineering project, but the students said their engineering knowledge definitely came into play.

“There were quite a few times that the sewing machine had an issue and we had to use engineering aspects to fix it,” said Scarbrough.

Their efforts were also three-tiered in order to make the biggest impact. In addition to the masks, they started a free tutoring program and hand-wrote letters to first responders thanking them for all they are doing. Accomplishing it all took a systems-oriented approach.

“To make all three projects happen at the same time, I had to make sure we had the most efficient process in place,” said Scarbrough. “It was my job to coordinate the majority of these efforts so I had to use a lot of the skills I have developed while at UT in order to do this.”

She and Cooper were able to produce the number of masks that they did in just a week thanks to the system they implemented. Cooper also put other engineering skills to work.

“In order to construct a face mask that was indeed protecting those who wear them, I had to research different materials and fabrics to figure out what works the best,” he said.

The students hope their project shows how strong the Volunteer Spirit can be in using their engineering education to give back.

“We were able to make an impact on our community in a positive way,” said Scarbrough. “We are proud of our accomplishments as well as all the other accomplishments UT students are making during this time.”

Scarbrough and Cooper, both Knoxville natives, are excited to begin embracing the goals of EWB as they move forward with their engineering careers.

“With our degrees we both wish to go to impoverished areas and give back once we have the means to,” said Scarbrough. “That is why we both love this club so much. We want to take this with us after graduation and make it our life mission.”

Associate Dean Ozlem Kilic encouraged the idea for the EWB chapter in a presentation in fall 2019.

“My objective in supporting the launch of this organization is to enhance global perspectives in the college and expose our students to the true impact of engineers as volunteers,” said Kilic. “The organization is a natural platform for Engineering Vols.”

EWB’s mission is to build a better world through engineering projects that empower communities to meet their basic human needs and equip leaders to solve the world’s most pressing challenges.

Kilic serves as faculty mentor for the group and TCE International Coordinator

Judith Mallory advised them in their application to establish an official chapter. Ashley Goluoglu, nuclear engineering junior, served as president of the burgeoning chapter in collaboration with Scarbrough, Cooper, and others. They are working closely with some TCE Board of Advisors members and department heads to launch some EWB projects.