Engineers Ourselves

Problem: The spare tire installation process on the assembly line at Subaru takes too long. How can we cut the time?

Solution: Put the high school students from the Engineering Design and Development class on the problem.

The students from McCutcheon High School watched the team at Subaru struggle with the tool they were using to bolt the spare tire to its housing in cars coming off the line. The wrench twisted, making the lock insecure and the process unreliable. The boys thought they had the answer: Redesign the tool.

They created a prototype of polymer plastic with metal pins that clamped the bolt securely and cut the time it was taking to install the spare tire in half. The problem was solved and the tool was fabricated and put into testing.

The two young men who solved the spare tire installation problem were at Subaru under the auspices of their Engineering Design and Development (EDD) course, the last in the STEM/Project Lead the Way (PLTW)  sequence offered at our high school. The class is a 2-hour block class offered to seniors who have completed the prerequisite PLTW courses. The students travel to one of two major manufacturing companies in Lafayette, Caterpillar and Subaru, two-three afternoons a week. There, they are assigned to a project engineer who guides them through the process of solving real problems that confront the company—on the assembly line or on the floor, even in quality control.

Nineteen students participated in the EDD program this year. Last week, singly or in pairs

Madison holds the prototype of a manifold caliper she created on the job at Caterpillar.
Madison holds the prototype of a manifold caliper she created on the job at Caterpillar.

or trios, they presented a summary of their activities—the problems they dealt with and the solutions they found—to an assembly of project engineers and executives from Caterpillar and Subaru; their teacher, Mr. Gary Werner; and other school personnel, including Central Office personnel and the Career and Technical Education coordinator.

“We liked seeing the real-world process,” the boys who redesigned the wrench said at the conclusion of their presentation. “We became engineers ourselves.”

It wasn’t the only problem these and other students worked on during their semester at Subaru. Nine students in all worked on In Process Control (IPC) issues with uniformity of paint color, reliability of welds, pacesetting for processes on the line, and safety monitoring. The daily routine for Logan  was to investigate a problem and assign it to an area that could resolve the issue. Loose or missing parts. A rear gate that wouldn’t close properly. A defective air flow sensor. “It was detective work,” he said, “and it gave me practice in auditing, investigation, and problem-solving—skills I’ll use all my life.”

John shows us the Engineering Notebook he was required to keep while at Caterpillar--a preview of what will be expected in college classes and in the field.
John shows us the Engineering Notebook he was required to keep while at Caterpillar–a preview of what will be expected in college classes and in the field.

Another ten students were assigned to project engineers at Caterpillar. This is Caterpillar’s 6th year working with students from McCutcheon.  This year’s crop worked on a variety of problems, including:

  • Creating a level to make sure that the turbo air tubes are all uniform in degree
  • Designing a suitable cover for the engine block so that stray items don’t drop through during assembly
  • Creating a lever that applies pressure evenly to the air manifold on the engine
  • Redesigning the layout of the line desk
  • Designing a fixture to hold a water block
  • Designing a dowel that will prevent people from hammering their fingers
  • Creating a shadow board to keep tools orderly and easily accessible
  • Redesigning the employees’ entrance
  • Redesigning the system for tagging items at lock out/tag out points

Notice the verbs I’ve used to list these projects: as every educator will recognize, they’re words used to designate upper level thinking skills.  Students applied ingenuity and expertise to real world problems, developing in the process solutions that are in active play at Caterpillar and Subaru today.

The skills they learned involve math, computer applications, and presentation. Critical thinking. Problem-solving. They learned to work in teams and to follow company protocols. To take direction, but to think independently to resolve issues.

“We learned a lot,” said James and CJ at the conclusion of their talk. “We learned responsibility. Other employees depended upon us. And creativity. We learned how important that is in problem-solving.”

This school year was the first time Subaru had teamed with the high school. The engineers liked the program, liked working with the students. “It’s a pipeline for us,” they said, and indeed it will be, judging by the newly announced college interns at Caterpillar. Two of those interns, from Purdue University, are graduates of McCutcheon’s Project Lead the Way program who did their EDD work at Caterpillar.

If you’ve followed my blog for long, you’ll recall the piece I wrote about the middle school STEM class, Anything but Random.  That was the exploratory STEM class. EDD is the culminating course. It’s a path worth following for students with an interest in engineering, for students who value hands-on learning, for creative and critical thinkers who want to solve real-world problems.

My colleague Gary Werner had the idea seven years ago to approach Caterpillar and arrange these min-internships for the EDD class.  A year of planning and curriculum writing followed. The partnership with Caterpillar that my colleague forged goes beyond the national EDD curriculum by putting kids in a real-world situation where they can “see it, feel it, touch it, breath it,” or as Mr. Werner loves to say, in a “hands-on, minds-on experience.”  The course has been a success all around, and compliments were extended by the students to their project engineers as well as to their teacher. In their presentation, seniors John, Michael, and Adrian thanked their Caterpillar mentors and commented that “School only goes so far.”  It’s been good, they said, “to see their projects in use.”

Indeed, thanks to this STEM program that has partnered successfully with local industry, nineteen  more students became engineers themselves this year.

 

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