26 June 2020

COVID-19 and Higher Education: Venezuelan University Works to Protect First Responders

UNESCO estimates that over 1.5 billion students in 165 countries are out of school due to COVID-19. The pandemic has forced the global academic community to explore new ways of teaching and learning, including distance and online education. This has proven challenging for both students and educators, who have to deal with the emotional, physical and economic difficulties posed by the illness while doing their part to help curb the spread of the virus.  The future is uncertain for everyone, particularly for millions of students scheduled to graduate this year who will face a world crippled economically by the pandemic. 

In the COVID-19 and higher education series, United Nations Academic Impact (UNAI) talks to students, educators and researchers in different parts of the world to find out how COVID-19 has affected them and how they are coping with the changes. The series also highlights lessons learned and potential positive outcomes of the global lockdown for higher education.

The School of Industrial Engineering at the Guayana campus of Andrés Bello Catholic University, a UNAI member institution in Venezuela, has launched a project to produce personal protective equipment (PPE) for local health professionals. A mixture of social entrepreneurship and community awareness paved the way for an innovative solution to that need, using existing knowledge and technology.

Andrés Bello alumnus Ives Lisis donated a 3D printer to his alma mater last year and he got in touch with the university to suggest that the printer be used to produce a specific model of face protective shield for medical personnel. Dr. Antonio Martelli, a local doctor, provided PLA plastic, the main material used to make the shields, that is produced from renewable resources such as sugar cane and corn starch.

Various potential designs for the shields were assessed, with the final selection being based on the design that used less raw material while meeting the standards for these devices. A team composed of university administrators, professors and students, oversaw the production of the face shields, 30 units of which can be produced for each kilo of PLA. Thus far, three local hospitals have received the first batch of 30 face shields. 

The acetate sheets which form part of the shields were donated by a local secondary school, taken from carefully selected transparent acetate folders commonly used by students when turning in homework to their teachers. Acetate works as an effective barrier because it is waterproof and reduces transmission of disease by reinforcing face masks that cover both the nose and mouth.

Face shields offer full protection as they also cover chin, cheeks, eyes and forehead. “This has reinforced the critical relevance of the university’s environmental, social and sustainable commitment,” said Professor Luisa Vera, Dean of the School of Industrial Engineering.

Munir Shmait, a senior majoring in industrial engineering noted that “As a future engineer one feels both pride and satisfaction being able to help the real heroes of this crisis: the health professionals.  I think that it is a duty of all us, including university students, to use the comprehensive knowledge we acquire in classrooms and labs to transform the realities around us and the society as a whole.”

“It is an honour to use available resources to help medical staff, to provide them with the tools they need to enhance their protection and carry out their important mission,” said Father Arturo Peraza, Vice-Rector of the university.

The work of students and staff at Andrés Bello Catholic University is an example of how UNAI member institutions are using the knowledge, innovation and resources they have to contribute to the global response to COVID-19.

For more information about this global response please visit the UN COVID-19 site and you can find more resources below: