How Renn Stein used epoxy and bubbles to make the world a better place

Renn Stein's story first aired at Out of the Loop season 3 in July 2020.

My name’s Renn Stein. I go to All Saints Episcopal School, and I’ve lived in Tyler for 11 years. I have a variety of interests from playing piano to playing tennis to managing my investment portfolio, but something I’m most proud of is thanks to a plastic tube, epoxy and some LED lights. 

I’ve always loved technology and engineering, and I always wanted to know how things work.

When I was 13, I took apart a broken iPhone to see all the components inside and made some educated guesses for what all those way too complicated components actually did. All my guesses were anything but truly educated. 

The experience was the most influential in developing my love of engineering. I later learned how to use a 3-D printer and that same year, All Saints expanded their fabrication resources to include a laser cutter, more than 10 3-D printers, large workspaces and every tool you could imagine.

But I felt as though these tools weren’t really being used to benefit the most people possible and were really being restricted to only helping the 180 or so students in the high school. 

So I founded Makers on a Mission. It’s a student-run organization focused on using engineering to help the community in any way possible.

We use the fabrication tools that All Saints offers to create anything that can help those in need in East Texas.

This was the first year of Makers on a Mission, and we had 22 members – which might not sound like a lot – but keep in mind, my entire grade is only 41 people.

So I knew that community engagement was important, and I knew I wanted to help out Tyler, but how could 3-D print publication really do that?

I was inspired by a field trip to the Treatment and Learning Center last year. For those of you that haven’t heard of the Treatment and Learning Center or visited, it’s a treatment center for children living with autism at any age in East Texas. 

While I was there, I watched their one way mirror as a teacher worked one-on-one with a student who was maybe five years old.

I was amazed by the insane patience and attention the teacher gave as she slowly and deliberately taught and retaught the same steps to this student. It wasn’t so much about the actual task the teacher was teaching but more about the student being able to keep focused, even when surrounded by all sorts of distractions in a playroom.

📷 all photos courtesy Renn Stein

So, I knew I wanted to help the Treatment and Learning Center. And after meeting with some people at the TLC, we decided the perfect way to do that would be to create bubble tubes. 

A bubble tube is basically just a foot-tall plastic tube with water inside, with lights and bubbles. It sounds relatively simple, but the end result is something like a lava lamp – but only more soothing and more mesmerizing.

And they really are mesmerizing. I can promise you that we’ve all spent way more time than we’d like to admit staring at them rather than actually working on them in the process. 

Since Renn began Makers on a Mission, the organization has partnered with All Saints Episcopal School art students to decorate the black box tube stands.

So, we thought the process would be relatively easy, and we started at the beginning of the school year. Unfortunately, we quickly realized it really wasn’t that easy.

We wanted to make them for as cheap as possible to make as many as possible, so we bought some cheap plastic tubes we found online that we assumed would hold water. 

They did not. 

That was our first of many issues. We solved it by using a silicon-based sealant to draw a line around the bottom where it was leaking, and after a couple of tries, they were watertight.

We were then ready to drill a hole for the lights and bubbler, and this is where we ran into our biggest problem. 

Thanks to some expert Amazon searching. I’d found a circular device that had LEDs in the middle with this ring of stone on the outside, and this allowed us to combine the two parts: The lights, which created obviously the light to make the water different colors; and the stone, which distributed air from an outside bubbler into the small mesmerizing bubbles that make a bubble tube.

Unfortunately, when we put these in the bottom and put the cables out the hole near the bottom of the tube, that’s when the problem occurred. No matter what we did, every time we put sealant in the hole to try and make the two water tight, it would not stick to the rubber tube that brought air from the bubbler to the stone.

We tried over and over and every time, it leaked the same. 

Ms. Adair, Makers on a Mission teacher sponsor, solved the bubble tube leak mystery.

Finally, our teacher sponsor for Makers on a Mission, Ms. Adair, came up with the idea to use epoxy on the rubber tube first to give the sealant something different to bond to. 

Finally it worked, and we were able to move on to making a base for the tube to sit on that would hold the bubbler and the wires.

We made this box out of just pieces of wood, drilled holes for the wiring for the bubbler and then painted it black to look a bit nicer. 

Finally, we were onto the last step: Creating something to hold the tube on top of the box to have a finished bubbler. We did this by 3-D printing it, because we thought this was the place where we could use the fabrication resources in the 3-D printers at All Saints.

After four or five tries, we finally had a successful one that held the two perfectly and the wires perfectly. Finally, we had a completed tube.

After countless wasted tubes of sealant, more than 20 soaked countertops and an incredible amount of nasty splinters, we had a finished product, and we were ready to deliver it.

We decided our first delivery should go to Odin, a teen living with severe autism from Ms. Adair’s church. We decided to deliver it to him on a Thursday night while he was at Grand Slam, because his family was there bowling. 

When we first walked into Grand Slam, I saw Odin from across the room, and he’s looking around frantically and was very clearly distraught and making a lot of noise. He was very clearly overwhelmed by the crowd.

But the second we plugged in the tube, immediately you could see his muscles relax as all his focus went onto the tube and he forgot about the chaos around him. 

We handed him a button to control the tube and he just continuously pressed it on and off – just sitting, smiling and staring quietly at the tube. He eventually accidentally dropped the button and immediately started making noise and was clearly focusing back on all the chaos around him.

But as soon as I handed the button back to him, he calmed down and everything was okay again. His parents have told us that since delivering it, it now sits in his room where he falls asleep looking at the bubble tube every night, and that it’s still working perfectly today. 

Seeing Odin so impacted by my work made the entire process and those many splinters instantly worthwhile. I knew that I could actually make a difference in someone’s life, and I wanted to broaden that impact.

Now, I know what you’re thinking. Can a bubble tube really cure Odin’s autism? No, but our hope is that it can make his life just a little bit easier. 

Some things can’t be solved, but at least we can help a teen sleep through the night. We can take small steps to make someone’s life brighter even if that comes in the form of a foot-tall tube full of water.

My work may create small victories, but they still matter. And since then, I’ve done more than just bubble tubes. 

After the coronavirus pandemic made its way to East Texas, I used a 3-D printer to print mask adjusters. They’re basically just little pieces of plastic that go in the back of your head for the mask straps to attach to. It allows the mask to fit better, and it also takes the pressure off your ears if you’re wearing it for long durations.

I ended up delivering 58 of these mask adjusters to health care workers around East Texas. 

I recently graduated from high school, and I’m attending Stanford University to study mechanical engineering in the fall. Before I leave, I will do everything I can to ensure that Makers on a Mission becomes a long-lasting club on All Saints’ campus, because I want the incredible resources of the school to continue to be used to help those in need around East Texas.

These are strange times we’re living in with lots of uncertainty for all of us.

But who knows when a tiny bit of 3-D printed plastic can make the world slightly better of a place.

Renn Stein is a sophomore at Stanford University studying mechanical engineering. He is a member of the Stanford club tennis team and a teaching assistant for an introductory computer science course.

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