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NEWS | March 12, 2021

NSWCPD Concludes National Engineers Week with Virtual STEM Event for Local Students

By By Brentan Debysingh, NSWCPD Corporate Communications NSWCPD

Naval Surface Warfare Center, Philadelphia Division (NSWCPD) concluded its National Engineers Week celebration by hosting a virtual Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) virtual event with students from local schools on Feb. 26, 2021.

With a focus on women in engineering, a highlight of the program was keynote speaker Dr. Michele Marcolongo, who holds a doctorate in bioengineering and serves as the Drosdick Endowed Dean of Engineering at Villanova University. She is also an entrepreneur, a co-holder of 15 patents/patent applications, and an advocate for inclusivity in engineering education and mentoring for female faculty and students in STEM.

During the hour-long event Marcolongo started her presentation by noting what it meant to be an engineer in the middle of the 21st century, referencing the Mars Rover Perseverance space vehicle, and the role engineers play in connecting evolving utilities, and much more.

“Engineers are daring. They’re daring to create COVID-19 solutions, keep data safe, reinventing technology and energy sources,” she said. “Engineers are at the core of all the translations to society, and it’s a fantastic field and a great way to make a positive impact on the world.”

Marcolongo chronicled a major project she successfully co-led last year: making face shields as a crowdsourcing endeavor during the COVID-19 pandemic.

She recalled that on Friday, March 13, 2020, Drexel University (where she worked previously) was shut down due to the evolving pandemic. But there remained a dire need for Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) at local hospitals to keep the staff safe.

“There were urgent logistic and supply challenges that could not be overcome by our normal means of procuring PPE, specifically face shields,” she added.

Marcolongo received an email from a friend in the medical field asking if her group could fabricate face shields via 3-dimensional (3D) printing, where a liquid polymer prints one layer of a specific shape. When it solidifies, more layers are added, until the structure itself results in building the desired object. She immediately created a task force consisting of other like-minded professionals.

She explained the importance of teamwork in engineering, saying, “Engineers almost always work in a team. We had a clinical collaborator and many other colleagues involved. I stepped in to help the team in strategy, communication, and logistics. Teamwork is a critical part of engineering.”

Marcolongo discussed the process of designing, engineering, prototyping, sourcing, and manufacturing face shields. Her team created headbands for the face shields via 3D printing. One of her students had a 3D printer in his apartment and built a headband using an open source design. The group worked on and created a prototype using 3D for printing.

In the first six days of the shutdown, they printed 20 headbands, and received feedback from her colleague’s emergency medicine department. She and her team refined the design and then decided to scale up to meet demand.

Marcolongo mentioned two important factors of the process: sourcing and communications.

“We had to be creative with our sourcing,” she said. “We needed help to 3D print. The local news did a story where we asked for help 3D printing. I received over 200 emails from people in the region willing to help print the headbands (from individuals and companies). Volunteers printed headbands anywhere they could until we had access to a lab at Drexel University and after. We picked up headbands from people’s houses and took them to Drexel for assembly.”

She added, “Another colleague specialized in data analytics and developed a centralized website that gave directions to volunteers and hospital partners and nursing homes about procuring the masks. The website ended up being a great place for us to centrally communicate and keep track of this project.”

Eventually, as communication improved, Marcolongo’s team scaled up when two manufacturers volunteered to use a different manufacturing technique called injection molding, which is significantly faster, but expensive in capital initially and also requires more equipment.

“Instead of making 50 headbands an hour with multiple 3D printers, you could make 1,000 headbands in a day,” she explained.

After getting 5,000 headbands in one week, Marcolongo remembered thinking, “’Oh my! What are we going to do with all of these headbands!’ We were really cranking at that point.”

In total, over 32,000 face shields were built and 30,000 were distributed to a variety of medical centers, school districts, and nursing homes between March 2020 and December 2020.

“This was a community event,” said Marcolongo. “We could not have executed this project and helped people without the power of volunteers who tirelessly worked with us to get the headbands made.”

After her presentation, she answered many engineering questions from the students. Marcolongo also shared advice and recommended classes, podcasts, and books for prospective students wishing to enter the engineering industry.

NSWCPD Deputy Chief Engineer (CHENG) Dorothy Kraynik closed the virtual event by explaining the responsibilities of the deputy CHENG, sharing information about a few NSWCPD engineering projects, noting different ways to get started as an engineer, and more.

She also meted some advice saying, “Hard work is essential to being successful no matter who you are. I also learned that standing up for your work is important, but it’s as important to listen.”

Kraynik ended the event with a quote from one of her role models, former Secretary of State, Dr. Condoleezza Rice: “When you find your passion, it’s yours, not what someone else thinks it should be.”

The NEW STEM virtual event definitely left an impression on the younger viewers, as reflected by thank you notes from the Little Flower Catholic High School for Girls, one of the participating schools.

“Thank you so much for taking time out of your day to sit and talk to us!” said student Gabby Dugan. “Thank you for also keeping everyone safe and helping with the designing and production of a face shield. I really enjoyed hearing a female engineer words of wisdom and experience. Thank you for also highlighting that failure is acceptable, and making mistakes will get you where you need to be. I feel like failure is a scary topic for me, but yesterday made me change my mind. Thank you again for all you do, especially during this COVID era where nothing is certain.”

Student Faith Cruz said, “Thank you for speaking to us this past Friday. I thoroughly enjoyed your presentation. It was very interesting to learn about how engineers were working to make protection for COVID-19. From how diligently you all worked to how creative you were during the process, it made me even more appreciative of engineers. Especially because I hope to pursue engineering after high school, your presentation meant a lot to me. It affirmed my decision in choosing engineering as my major in college.”

NSWCPD employs approximately 2,700 civilian engineers, scientists, technicians, and support personnel. The NSWCPD team does the research and development, test and evaluation, acquisition support, and in-service and logistics engineering for the non-nuclear machinery, ship machinery systems, and related equipment and material for Navy surface ships and submarines. NSWCPD is also the lead organization providing cybersecurity for all ship systems.