Iowa City Press Citizen: Engineering New Classes

Monday, December 24, 2007

Marble-sorting machines and sumo cars are just some of the things that have attracted students to new pre-engineering classes at City and West highs this year.

Part of a nationwide standardized pre-engineering program called Project Lead the Way, the class is designed to encourage students' interest in the engineering and science fields, said Dominic Audia, who teaches the class at both schools.

"It's really an applied science," he said. "They get to use this hands-on approach."

The Iowa City School District bought the computers and other equipment with donations from the Kern Foundation and Rockwell Collins, he said. It also is supported in part by the engineering departments at the University of Iowa and Iowa State University and other universities, Audia said.

The class provides a means not only to get an introduction to engineering, but also possibly earn college credit at both schools, he said. With the equipment and extra classes from Audia, the students have learned concepts, such as thermodynamics and kinematics, which commonly are found in a first-year engineering course in college, Audia said. They also learn to present their designs in written reports and public speaking, he said.

Using those lessons, the students have designed projects, such as a marble-sorting machine, which was their last project before the winter break. City High senior Austin Hull designed a computer program that sends an electrical signal to a light and sensor, which turns a gear to roll a marble to a platform. The light is shone through the marble to the sensor, which detects how much of the beam got through to determine the the marble's color.

"Different color marbles let different amounts of light through," said Hull, 17, as the marble was released into a basket with similarly-color balls.

Using those lessons, students in the classes have designed projects such as the sumo car, a remote-controlled vehicle designed for battle. The City High class competed against the West High students in a series of sumo car bouts in November, with West High's number one robot winning the big battle against City High's champion robot.

"This is the probably the hands-on, most fun class," said Hull, who has been accepted into ISU's engineering program.

The work inspired City High senior Tyler Grenko, 17, to take another look at engineering as a possible future career.

"I came to this class and realized engineering is what I want to do," said Grenko, who plans to attend UI next year.

West High junior Brett Southwick, 17, said he is planning to study mechanical engineering in college. He said he thought the pre-engineering class was a good introduction, even as he learned the work involved in projects such as writing a program for the marble-sorting machine.

"It's the most time consuming, making it work," he said. "It's trial and error."

Audia said he also hopes to expand the class to more girls. This year, West High junior Brooke Ludvicek is the only female student in both classes. She said she had considered studying biomedical engineering and wanted to learn more.

"My brother was going into engineering and I wanted to check it out," she said.

Audia said the program is expanding across the area, with Prairie and Jefferson High Schools in Cedar Rapids starting pre-engineering classes this year. In addition, Clear Creek Amana High is in its first year of offering an introduction to engineering design class, he said. He said he hopes to add aerospace and biomedical engineering to the class offerings in the next few years.

Reach Rob Daniel at 339-7360 or