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Crushing cans for college credits

by CJ Carnacchio

December 14, 2011

OHS student Boomer Logan explains how his team’s can-crushing system works. Photo by CJC.
A group of Oxford High School students last week celebrated the end of their college-level course by crushing aluminum soda cans with strange contraptions.

It sounds weird, but that's how future engineers roll.

Students taking the Intro to Engineering class designed, built and demonstrated can-crushing systems for their final project.

"This project is the culmination of all the activities we do throughout the semester," said Dr. Robert W. Fletcher, an associate professor and director of the Alternative Energy Program at Lawrence Technological University (LTU) in Southfield. "This is kind of the grand-daddy of them all."

Fletcher co-teaches the course with OHS math instructor Phil Kimmel.

The class is actually the exact same intro course that's taught to first-year students attending LTU.

"We've just taken this course and brought it to Oxford," Fletcher said. "We haven't modified the class at all. All the assignments are exactly the same as what students are given at Lawrence Tech. They're essentially taking a first-year engineering class at the high school level."

Fletcher explained how Oxford School officials had approached LTU about the possibility of offering one its engineering courses to local students.

"This course was a natural selection," he said. "It doesn't require that students have calculus. It doesn't require that they've taken chemistry or physics yet. It's a good course for them to take because it doesn't have all the university prerequisites of many of our other engineering courses."

Kimmel, who spent six years working as an engineer for Chrysler, absolutely loves the class because it's a totally "hands-on" experience as opposed to the typical intro courses he took as a student, which usually involved lots of lecturing and watching videos.

"They were kind of a snoozer," he said. "This class is different than any introduction I've ever had."

Throughout the semester, the students worked on 14 different design-build projects, including a bamboo bridge for a remote island, solar oven and a chair made entirely out of newspapers and twine.

"Some of them worked out very, very well," Kimmel said. "Some of them didn't. It's not so much the success rate as what you learn from it."

The projects taught the students how to deal with deadlines, various constraints and requirements, financial limits and having to work as part of a team.

"We wanted to get them thinking like engineers," he said.

For the can-crusher project, the teams had to design and build a system consisting of three components a magazine that holds and dispenses the cans, a crusher and a conveyor that transports the crushed cans to a plastic bag.

"They have to integrate it all together, so it all works properly, then demonstrate it," Fletcher said.

Following the demonstrations, the class gathered in a group to discuss the results with Fletcher and Kimmel.

Each team must now write a performance review that includes how they would do things differently next time and how the system would behave with the updated design and modifications.

"It's really a full loop," Fletcher said. "They're given a task, they design and test it, then report back, assess how it performs and make recommendations for future designs."

Projects such as the can-crusher give the students "a realistic idea of what engineering is," Kimmel said.

He enjoyed watching the fresh excitement each new project generated among the students.

"It wasn't just another school project or activity," Kimmel said. "It was something that they designed, built and took ownership of."

In addition to a unique educational experience, OHS students who complete the course also receive two college credits, free of charge.

"It's a university course that Lawrence Tech fully recognizes and will accept credits for," Fletcher said.

Even if a student chooses to further their education at an institution other than LTU, the credits are still valid.

"Our first-year Introduction to Engineering course is accepted by all universities," Fletcher said. "If a student wanted to go some place else, it's as if they were taking the class at Lawrence Tech and that credit would transfer to any other university that we have agreements with. We have agreements with virtually every four-year university in the state of Michigan."

The credits are also valid at community colleges.

Ultimately, Kimmel believes the course is a great way for students to experience the engineering field and decide whether or not they wish to pursue it as a career path.

"My job is to introduce this (subject) to them," he said. "It's not to make them be an engineer."

Kimmel said it's better for students to take this free class now and decide engineering isn't for them as opposed to spending "a whole bunch of money" in college tuition only to reach the same conclusion.

Next semester, LTU and OHS will partner to offer a Mechanical Engineering Graphics course, which will expose students to Computer-Aided Design (CAD), making models and working with CNC machines.

"All of the support from our district is starting to come to fruition," Kimmel said.