Creative Quarantine: Computer Scientist and Maker Jeff Solin

Jeff Solin | Photo Credit: Peter Tsai

Jeff Solin, Computer Science and Making teacher at Lane Tech High School discusses the shut-down; how he answered the call to action by rapidly designing a PPE to keep essential workers safer on the job.

1. How are you holding up?

I’ve been holding up ok overall. When everything started crashing down with Covid-19, I fairly quickly turned my energy towards helping my students process what was going on. I started learning and then working on PPE efforts locally, and trying to figure out how to help my own children (who struggled with our district’s implementation of remote learning). Much of my stress lately has been related to our district’s plans to reopen schools in a hybrid model instead of starting with all remote learning. I’ve been teaching in Chicago Public Schools for 19 years and both of my children attend Lane Tech, the school where I teach.


Solin Flatpack Face Shield, Early Prototype | ©Jeff Solin

2. Has Covid-19 had an effect on your work? If so, in what way?

Very much so…it probably stems from the fact that I have more than one job. I have a side-hustle called Solin Systems that I’ve owned for over 20 years. I do custom design and installation of networking, audio/video, and home automation systems. That work all but dried up for quite some time. I was able to do some smaller-scale remote installations, but overall, people didn’t want workers in their homes, and I didn’t want to go into their homes to work. I also have a pretty strange side job emceeing a handful of large tattoo conventions around the country (Columbus, Phoenix, Biloxi, St. Louis). At those conventions, I use a software platform that an old student of mine created with me that helps implement tattoo (or other content) competitions fairly. When the Covid-19 madness first hit, I was literally on my way to the first convention of the year, and I bailed out during my connecting flight. It was a significant loss of income, but I didn’t feel right participating in a public event, especially with the expectation of coming back to my students and potentially putting them at risk. Soon after, the other three events were all cancelled. All of this happened while my main job, being a teacher, was transforming in so many ways. During the layover for my flight, it was announced that Chicago Public Schools would cancel in-person school for at least 2 weeks. My business was drying up, my emceeing/judging software jobs were falling apart, and something big was about to happen with teaching and learning. So yep, it really had an effect on my work.

Many of my students are either providing childcare for their families or are essential workers (often full time), especially with some parents losing work.

On the making / teaching side of things, Covid-19 led me to design the Solin Flatpack Face Shield solinfaceshield.com. When everything started, I literally had no idea what PPE was, and I had very little experience designing something directly with a client that would end up being mass-produced. When I started getting involved with DIY PPE efforts, most of the face shields being produced were being made with 3D printers. The head bracket would be 3D printed, then a strap would be made from elastic / rubber bands / bike tubes, and a shield would be added by 3-hole punching an 8.5×11 transparency sheet. This process took at least a couple of hours, often involved things moving and being assembled between multiple people, and required sourcing at least 3 materials. Once assembled, they were hard to ship. This is what motivated me to try and design a flatpack, single-material, fast-to-make face shield. Soon after I started to work on PPE, I became a lead organizer with an all-volunteer group that eventually became known as the Illinois PPE Network (IPPEN) illinoisppe.org. Through IPPEN I was connected with a doctor at the University of Chicago Hospital named Dr. Juan Alban. Over the course of about a week, Dr. Alban would come to my house, pick up my next iteration of the shield, bring it back to the hospital to test with 15 or so other doctors, then he would call me that night with their requested changes. I’d implement them the next day and have a new version ready that night. The shield could be laser cut in about 90 seconds and was ready to ship and / or use immediately. In about a week, we went from the first viable prototypes to publishing the first version. The plans have always been published for free so that others could make them in their own communities. One week later, with each version being published along the way, V8 was published. At IPPEN, we received enough donations from the community to buy large quantities of PETG (the plastic used for these shields) as soon as we were able to. The material became very hard to get. Thanks to additional in-kind donations from JC Marovich from Triangle Dies and Supplies, we were able to have a steel rule die made that would allow us to mass-produce the shields. A manufacturer named Great Northern offered to do the stamping for free, and all of this generosity turned into roughly 8000 V8 shields being produced and donated. This all led to a bit of press which helped us bring in more donation money which led to more design and fabrication of PPE that we could donate. There was a WGN News piece, an article in the Chicago Tribune, and an article in a MAKE: Magazine’s Plan C series that covered it. That exposure led to additional donations with IPPEN, which in turn led to the purchase of roughly $65K in PETG plastic to produce upwards of 80,000 more shields which we are finalizing now. For V9, I completely redesigned the shield and again field tested it for feedback with the doctors at the University of Chicago. The new version can be made in as few as 2 total pieces, and no more than 3 depending on the bed size of the laser cutter or blade size of the die. V8 had 5 pieces. V9 also eliminates all of the small fallout scraps that needed to be popped out form the V8 design. V9 was published back on July 16th along with a redesign of the site to support the V8 shields out in the field along with the new design which has a different assembly process.


Solin Flatpack V8 | ©Jeff Solin

Solin Flatpack, WGN News | Screen Capture: Jeff Solin

3. Is there anything you’ve added to your practice that you’d like to keep after this is over?

On the teaching side, I held all of my classes live and recorded each class which I then posted online later that day. Many of my students are either providing childcare for their families or are essential workers (often full time), especially with some parents losing work. By posting each class online, I was trying to still give all of those students a chance to attend class for that day. Before the pandemic, I had thought about trying to implement or partially implement “flipped classroom” concepts where you pre-record videos as the instruction part, and then work on projects / practice during the classroom part. The pandemic gave me additional experience with the tools used in flipped classrooms. At the time of this writing, Chicago Public Schools is planning to implement a hybrid learning model with partial in-person learning and partial remote learning. Regardless of whether we’re teaching in a hybrid or all-remote environment, these tools will be needed. My colleagues and I have also been working on new ways to bring ideas of making and computer science into students’ homes and their own environments. We’ve done this with projects in the past, but the pandemic increased the importance and urgency. Our curriculum often focuses on civic engagement and what better place for that than within your own community? Mostly the experiences are what I’ll keep the most. I had never worked on an urgent, rapidly iterative project with a doctor before, and it was just amazing to be a part of. I’m not a product designer, I’ve never made something that became produced in quantity, and I’ve never worked on a physical object that helps protect people. I constantly shared and discussed the status of the design and the experiences with my students in our virtual classes to show them that the skills they’re learning can provide real impact. These experiences will stay with me forever and will continue to inform my teaching and pedagogy for years to come.


Brenda Darden-Wilkerson wearing Solin Flatpack V9 | Photo Credit: Brenda Darden-Wilkerson

4. Of the artists you follow, who is handling this particularly well?

First is D-Nice for his Club Quarantine. He’s a well-known DJ and he has been live-streaming really fun and exciting sets along with some socially-distanced studio performances to keep people’s spirits up. It’s emotionally tough being holed up so much, and music has really helped my family occasionally escape that feeling. Another incredibly talented artist is my daughter Sunshine (17). Although the pandemic version of school has been very tough for her, her creative output has been amazing. She’s been cranking out everything from paintings to drawings to drag makeup. For the V8 version of the face shield, a friend and very talented artist, Craighton Berman, generously donated his time and effort to make assembly illustrations. For V9 I asked Sunshine if she would be interested in making the illustrations and she was really excited to be a part of it. She immediately went to work and had everything finished that same day. You can check out some more of her art on her art Instagram page.


Sunshine Solin’s Drawing for Assembled V9 | ©Sunshine Solin

Jeff Solin is a Computer Science & Making teacher at Lane Tech High School and winner of the 2018 NCWIT National Educator Award. He co-founded CSTA Chicago and helped bring the Exploring CS curriculum to Chicago Public Schools. Jeff designed and built Lane’s LTMaker Lab, a 4000 sqft maker space (ltmakers.org) as part of his work bringing Maker Ed into schools. His curriculum, professional dev, and project collaborations include The James Dyson Foundation, Argonne National Labs, SAIC, University of Chicago, Indiana University, the Chicago Cubs, and the National Science Foundation. Jeff is also an organizing leader for the Illinois PPE Network (illinoisppe.org) and designed the solinfaceshield.com, a flatpack, single-material face shield that is being mass-manufactured and donated to those that need it.