GCU engineering event was no small potatoes

Sixth- through eighth-grade students from Sevilla West School in the Alhambra Elementary School District engineer a bridge using potatoes as a challenge item at the Engineering Shop Tour, Workshop and Challenge at Grand Canyon University.

Story by Lana Sweeten-Shults
Photos courtesy of Corinne Araza
GCU News Bureau

Love can build a bridge. But potatoes?

In the engineering world, sure. You have to work with the materials you’ve got, then innovate. At a Grand Canyon University Engineering Shop Tour, Workshop and Challenge on Saturday, sixth- through eighth-graders from the Alhambra Elementary School District’s Sevilla West School were given a pretty unusual material to work with -- potatoes.

Recent electrical engineering graduate Michael Erisman shows students some tools of the trade.

Michael Erisman, who graduated from GCU in April with an electrical engineering degree, wanted to throw a wrench into the machinery and make one of the hands-on workshop activities – to build a bridge – more challenging. His solution: “They had to incorporate potatoes as their challenge item and make them a significant part of their design.”

So bridges served up with potatoes, it was.

It was just one of the activities incorporated into the three-hour workshop, the first tour and workshop for young students in the engineering shops since they made their debut at the end of 2016.

The seeds for the event were planted when Erisman volunteered in March at Mathematics Engineering Science Achievement Day, where students from underserved schools present designs in response to nine engineering design challenges from Arizona MESA.

He was working with Alhambra Elementary School District MESA educator Mia DeLaRosa on MESA Day when he asked, casually, “Is there anything you’d like to do at GCU with these kids?”

“She said to Michael, this is great, but it would be better if the students could see this in a shop,” Director of K12 STEM Outreach Corinne Araza said. “They don’t know what a lathe is.”

And so Erisman took the initiative to organize the shop tour and workshop – and that’s what was amazing about the event, in Araza’s eyes.

“It’s student-led,” she said, in addition to being student conceived.

Makayla Jewell, a biomedical engineering major and president of GCU's Robotics Club, leads one of the groups on a tour of the engineering shops.

Erisman recruited a few Lopes to help facilitate the tour and workshop, such as biomedical engineering major and GCU Robotics Club President Makayla Jewell, who is spending her summer interning with Heitek Automation. The team worked closely with shop manager John Berkheimer to arrange the tour. And Araza helped out, too, by putting Erisman in contact with GCU College of Education student Eva Lippert, who helped take Erisman’s engineering activities concepts and put a strong teaching backbone behind them.

Lippert said she helped bring the concepts of all the different engineering shops together.

"A lot of the kids had no idea building a simple metal structure used all the labs (they toured)," she said of the bridge-building project.

She also got students to start thinking more deeply about what they were learning: "How can you pull from this competition for other competitions?" she asked.

Organizers also had to make sure safety was a priority and decided how the shops and machines might best accommodate sixth- to eighth-graders.

“The cool thing was that there were so many GCU students involved; we were just the floaters,” she said of adult educators nearby who didn’t have to lead the workshop at all but watched as the University’s engineering students took charge.

GCU students spent the first hour of the event showing shop equipment to the Sevilla West students -- all from the school's MESA team: “We were able to give them a hands-on experience with some of the equipment,” Erisman said.

They even got to see one of the solar capstone projects completed by GCU engineering majors in the spring. Then they launched into activities and challenges for the remainder of the tour and workshop.

Sevilla West students get to see one of the solar capstone projects submitted by engineering students.

They explored the wood shop, the finishing room, and watched a Haas CNC (computer numerically controlled) turning center, a massive manufacturing machine used to cut items.

Besides making a bridge, students also spent a little time in the metal shop and finishing room making a take-home metal Lope, which was laser-cut and powder-coated.

Erisman, who has a job lined up with SmithGroup in Phoenix and interviewed with such companies as Raytheon and Microchip after graduation, has worked with younger kids throughout high school and didn’t hesitate to show them the engineering shops, where he spent so much time as a college student. He was more than happy to return to campus -- as were the rest of the Lopes, all on summer break -- a couple of weeks after he already had graduated.

“It was phenomenal working with these kids,” he said. “It was super easy. They were really great kids.”

Sevilla West students spent time in the wood shop and finishing room and got to watch a Haas CNC machine in action.

Lippert said the Sevilla West MESA team is made up of very competitive students, and Saturday's tour was one of those days where they got to focus a little more on being creative.

Araza said, “The teacher was so blown away. She said that GCU goes above and beyond for our students.”

“Our first goal was to teach kids a little bit about the manufacturing process,” Erisman said, and to give students a firsthand look at the machining behind engineering. But more importantly, “the big part was to get the kids excited for engineering and excited for what they can do in the future.”

Contact GCU senior writer Lana Sweeten-Shults at [email protected] or at 602-639-7901.


Related content:

GCU Today: First GCU Engineering grads helped build new program

GCU Today: First graduates complete the engineering circuit


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