UNI sociologists team up with the University of Mississippi State to study how people stepped up during this pandemic

UNI sociologists team up with the University of Mississippi State to study how people stepped up during this pandemic

In the early months of the pandemic, University of Northern Iowa student Hannah Van Theemsche designed and built mobile wooden stands stocked with free masks made by a local nonprofit group. Her goal was to help homeless and underprivileged populations stay safe.

What started as a graduation project from UNI’s Textiles and Apparels program grew to help serve the community. Van Theemsche is one of many people throughout the country, including numerous Panthers, to pitch in and manufacture or distribute personal protective equipment (PPE) when it was in short supply in the early months of COVID-19.

Now, a study by a team of sociologists from the University of Northern Iowa and Mississippi State University is looking into the factors that led to this massive communal effort, as they seek to understand why people chose to volunteer their money, fabric, time and skills during a national crisis.

UNI sociology professor Marybeth Stalp, along with colleagues at Mississippi State University, set up a qualitative study looking at how people were responding to help during the pandemic. The study, which is in progress, has found that women were more likely to be associated with large networks of PPE manufacturers, while men were more likely to work alone. The study has also shown that women are more likely to focus on sewing and distributing cloth masks, hospital gowns, surgical caps and shoe covers, while men are more likely to focus on making ear guards and face shields via 3D printing or use brew kits to make hand sanitizer. 

“Making PPE in these ways provide a sense of control for makers, and also a sense of purpose -- they feel better connecting with others to make more, and to help more people in need," Stalp said. 

UNI has also been involved in these efforts. Administrators, faculty and students were part of a scaled-up project in April that assembled 10,000 face shields for UnityPoint Health hospitals. Plastic face shields for medical workers were made on 3D printers in UNI’s Additive Manufacturing Center. The chemistry, biology and physics departments collected spare personal protective equipment, donating some 500 items including goggles, face shields and lab coats along with thousands of exam gloves. And theatre students and Textiles and Apparels Program students both sewed protective masks for the community.