Nathan Harris

Solving Problems Creatively

For health care workers and other professionals working on the frontlines to care for those affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, wearing a mask can cause blisters and rashes behind the ears while they are worn for eight or more hours each day. Using his 3D printer, Nathan Harris, an eighth grader at Jackson Junior High School and formerly St. Vincent’s in Cape Girardeau, makes ear guards to help prevent those irritations in half an hour.

That’s what he’s done since March, when he saw an article about a similar project in The Washington Post. Inspired by this, Nathan found a pattern for ear guards online and tweaked it by his own design to better suit his needs. The ear guards he makes are flexible and made of plastic filament, wrapping around the back of the head with teeth that a mask’s elastic can be hooked onto to adjust to the correct size. They lift the mask’s elastic bands off of the ears and help the mask fit more snugly and securely around the face. Before his printer broke from exertion in October, Nathan made approximately 1,000 ear guards and donated them to local individuals and hospitals.

Nathan says this was a small way he knew he could make a difference in the midst of such a large problem.

“I like to know that other people are using them and actually enjoying them,” he says. “It’s the one thing that pretty much I could give to the community to be able to use.” 

Nathan, who loves coding and making Minecraft models, received his printer for a Christmas gift last year. Through using a 3D printer, he thought it would be cool, he says, to be able to create his own files and then turn his ideas into physical copies of things he could use. His parents agreed.

“You’re kind of a creative and coding guy, so it seemed like a good mix to do creative and then computer-type things,” says Jeanne Harris, Nathan’s mom.

As he was designing the file for the ear guards, Nathan says he ran into a few challenges. At first, he stacked the ear guards on top of each other as he created them, which took a lot of trimming to make them into the correct shape. To problem solve, he began making the ear guards one by one, which he says made them a lot cleaner. This, though, took a lot of time to make, so he decided to print 10 at a time and lay them out in groups of five, which allowed them to be printed faster and more cleanly. 

Health care professionals have been grateful for the gesture, Nathan says. He donated a barrel of the ear guards to Saint Francis Healthcare Center in Cape Girardeau, and nurses posted a picture of themselves wearing the ear guards on Facebook as a thank you. Maryann Rees, Chief Executive Officer of Saint Francis, also posted a video on social media demonstrating how to use the ear guards and gave a shout-out to Nathan for making and donating them. Jeanne says it was fun to see the ear guards making a difference in people’s lives, even if it was just a small one.

Nathan is participating in Codefi’s Youth Coding League this season and has also participated in the past — his team won during the second season. He has gone to space camp at the Kennedy Space Center and is a Boy Scout getting ready to start on his Eagle Scout Project. Someday, he says he might want to work for Nintendo.

Until then, his advice to other young people who have an idea for a project that helps their community is practical.

“Use your resources; think about what you have, and then use that,” he says. “Or, if you have any talents, those are good.” 

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