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Tomorrow’s Builders and Creators

Glacier High School’s capstone engineering students get real-world training as they problem solve through teamwork and invention

Amid all the 3-D printers and sophisticated drafting and design programs flashing on computer screens throughout the classroom, the students in Glacier High School’s capstone engineering course have a straightforward goal that’s as old as humanity itself: identify a problem and figure out a way to solve it.

It’s just that the methodology and technology they incorporate aren’t straightforward, at least to the untrained, nor are the problems simple. These ambitious young engineers are undaunted. Bright and motivated, they’re preparing themselves to be the builders and creators of tomorrow.

But they’re already pretty good at it today, as proven by the 3-D printed prototypes of ski pole grips, soft-soil tent stakes and other student-engineered inventions scattered around the classroom.

“I find that the best thing I can do,” says Troy Smith, the course’s teacher, “is shut up and walk away so they can get some work done.”

Smith’s joking self-deprecation notwithstanding, it’s true that these select juniors and seniors must exhibit ample self-discipline in order to be and excel in the demanding advanced engineering class. They have all taken lower-level engineering courses and other prerequisites, such as calculus, chemistry and physics, to qualify for the capstone course, but even that broad foundation only goes so far.

“All that stuff doesn’t mean as much as work ethic,” Smith said. “The group in this class, it’s a job for them.”

But it’s worth it.

“I’d drop any class in a heartbeat for this class,” senior Micah Reason said.

The students in Smith’s course are divided into five teams, each one tasked at the beginning of the school year with identifying a problem in their lives or society, researching it for sufficient evidence to justify its categorization as a problem in need of a solution, and then working on a solution. It’s one project that takes all year, and it’s difficult, but the students all say it’s immensely rewarding.

One team zeroed in on building a lightweight soft-soil tent stake that would work better for beaches and other loose-ground surfaces than others currently on the market. After hatching the idea, they took to social media to survey whether there was sufficient need for such a product. There was, so they set about devising a solution.

Through long hours and teamwork, the four team members — Morgan Cordell, Brady Peiffer, Hunter Nicholson and Brigham Pitts — honed and tweaked the computer-modeled design until they were happy with the prototype produced by the 3-D printer. The stake was able to withstand twice the level of newtons, the international measurement for force, as the industry-leading stake.

“It blew it out of the water,” Nicholson said.

The final result was good enough that the students have explored patenting it. Dan Leatzow of Flathead Valley Community College is using a CNC machine to create an aluminum prototype.

Whether or not the students end up patenting the design, they have already demonstrated a preternatural knack for the field they have all chosen, except for Pitts, who will go into pre-med in college. The three others will study engineering, as will many other classmates.

Stationed next to the tent-stake team was the trio of Matt Lessmeier, Malachi Perry and Reason, who identified the problem of ski pole straps presenting injury concerns. Lessmeier works on a ski trail crew and is a skier himself, and he said an acquaintance in ski patrol doesn’t use straps on her poles because of the risk.

“We started thinking, ‘There’s got to be some kind of solution to that,’” Lessmeier said.

The end result of their year-long mission to find a solution is a ski pole grip on which the strap attaches to a built-in shear pin that breaks with a certain amount of force, thus sparing the hand, wrist and arm from trauma if the pole gets caught in snow or on something else.

All five teams presented their projects in front of a panel of professional engineers on May 23. The capstone course is one of seven engineering classes offered at Glacier, all part of Project Lead the Way (PLTW), a nonprofit that develops STEM curricula for schools across the country with an emphasis on real-world, hands-on experience.

Flathead High School offers biomedical PLTW curricula, giving Kalispell’s two high schools immersive educational programs in two different important fields. Smith said students with an interest in becoming a doctor can get a strong foundation at Flathead, while kids interested in engineering can find training at Glacier.

“I picked Glacier because of the engineering program,” Lessmeier said.

Smith notes that Flathead also has an auto shop, while the Agricultural Education Center provides ag instruction plus a forthcoming welding program, giving Kalispell students a broad base of hands-on educational opportunities across a range of potential career paths.

Smith says those offerings complement more traditional courses, pointing to the compatibility of engineering with wood shop, a long-established standby vocational class in high school.

“We’re not trying to replace the old skills,” he said. “It’s about offering more than one skillset.”

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