Student-led nonprofit to win workforce award at California Economic Summit

1000 450 Ed Coghlan

(Photo Credit: STEMbassadors/Ventura Unified School District)

As the COVID-19 pandemic first began to spread earlier this year, there was a desperate need across the country for personal protective equipment (PPE) for healthcare workers.

“We didn’t know where we were going to get our supplies,” said Dr. Richard Rutherford, director of quality and safety for the Ventura County Medical Center and Santa Paula Hospitals.

In stepped 17 high school students who make up the STEMbassadors team, a student-led non profit founded in 2017 with the primary objective of filling the need for applied STEM education in K-12 schools.

Two of their students, Patrick Waechter and Anshul Bajaj conceived the idea of manufacturing face shields needed at five local hospitals in Ventura County. For Waechter, it was personal. His mom is a nurse at the Ventura County Medical Center.

They took the idea of using 3D printers to make face shields to Alex Wulff, a middle school teacher who has mentored students from his position at DATA Middle School and is also CEO of the nonprofit.

They tried out a few prototypes and took them to Dr. Robertson. The goal was to make 4,000 face shields.

They manufactured over 20,000 by the middle of summer and not only have supplied all the hospitals in Ventura County but have also shipped their product to Bolivia, Nicaragua, El Salvador, India and Mozambique.

As a result, STEMbassadors will be honored at the California Economic Summit on December 3rd as a winner in the 2020 Partnerships for Industry and Education (PIE) contest.

For students like Malaya Aspuria, who is a junior at Rio Mesa High School, being part of the STEMbassadors lets her learn real-world applications and help people.

“A lot of my family are first responders in the health care here in Ventura County and also in the Philippines,” she said.

Alex Wulff is not your normal teacher.

“I hated school when I was a kid because I never felt like the teacher was reaching me,” Wulff said. “I teach the way I wanted to be taught.”

In addition to Wulff’s dedication, the students also benefit from ongoing investment in the STEM programs.

“You should see his classroom,” said Dr. Rutherford. “It’s full of cutting-edge technology.”

When Wulff isn’t busy teacher and mentoring, he’s writing grants. He explains his model is that he runs a public-school classroom that is funded by corporate and foundation support.

“We use the money to buy fancy stuff with which we do fancy things,” he said. “Given that we are a student run nonprofit, we could literally turn on a dime and start manufacturing the face shields. Our students were fantastic.”

But as you might guess, scaling up an operation that fast meant that not everything they needed they had.

“We were super fortunate that we’ve had big corporate support,” he said. “I hope you can mention them.”

ECA Medical created an injection mold and increased the production of from several hundred units per week, to several thousand.

Associated Pacific Machinery allowed STEMbassadors to use their industrial die press to produce up to 3,000 lenses per day.

American Plastics supplied PETG film at cost despite massive gouging happening in the industry.

And when they ran into a supply problem, Vince Alves at Scosche Industries stepped into to help acquire PETG film for lenses from China when no one else could get it.

MJP Computers is another long-term supporter of the students, providing computers and funding.

Wulff also noted that Sensata Foundation and the Gene Haas Foundation have been long term supporters.

For Ward Sokoloski of ECA Medical, it was easy to step in and help.

“It was evident from my initial conversations that they were serious about wanting to scale the process.  ECA Medical decided to work with them. The students learned how to optimize their design for high volume manufacturing,” he said.

Meanwhile, Wulff’s students continue to make a difference. One has enrolled at Oregon State and started a STEMbassadors branch there. For Doctor Rutherford, Wulff is a role model.

“We should be asking how do we get more people like Alex into education?” he asked “He’s a very bright and motivated guy who is making a difference not only for his students but for all of us.”


Ed Coghlan

All stories by: Ed Coghlan