Michael Chen, 12, of Raleigh, North Carolina, a seventh-grader at Triangle Math and Science Academy, has made more than 580 mask “buckles” with his 3D printer to lessen the discomfort that wearing face masks for extended periods can cause behind the ears. In March of 2020, Michael and his family had many conversations about COVID-19. “My mother showed us images of healthcare workers with sores on their faces left by the masks they needed to wear for long hours,” Michael said. “But what wasn’t visible were the sore marks behind the ears. This can be very painful for the mask-wearer.” He wondered if there was a way he could use the 3D printer he had purchased earlier to solve that problem. Could he make something that could keep the mask’s elastic ties from touching the area behind the ears and still keep the mask on tight?
After some research, Michael discovered mask buckles, a piece of plastic worn on the back of the head that allows a mask wearer to anchor the ear elastic strings there instead of behind the ears. With a design that would fit different head sizes and hairstyles, Michael began making his buckles for healthcare workers in his community and for a cardiologist friend who was working on the frontlines in New York. As news of his project spread, he began getting requests for mask buckles from other area hospitals and physicians. The most difficult part, Michael said, was filling a request for 250 buckles just as his printer broke down. Luckily, he had two neighbors who offered to use their own 3D printers to help fill the order, often printing all through the night, he said.