Pre-Engineering Academy Marks Five Years

SNOW HILL — With a new batch of Worcester Technical High School’s (WTHS) seniors set to graduate this year, Engineering Instructor Bob Dawson pointed to the capstone projects of this year’s class as further proof that the five-year-old pre-engineering program is producing results.

“The pre-engineering academy, we’re in our fifth year, so these kids that are seniors, they’re our second set of graduates. They come to us in the eighth grade and we keep them for four years,” Dawson said.

Pre-engineering senior capstones do not have defined boundaries. The only common theme is that all of the projects are supposed to be practical and aimed at solving problems students encounter in their everyday lives.

“We do a lot of problem solving,” Dawson said. “It’s an extremely practical course because I show the kids where the road is but they have to go down it.”

The problems can be major or minor. For example, one group of seniors decided to build a better hairbrush that would require less maintenance.

“So these two kids decided that they’re going to come up with a brush that doesn’t need an extra tool,” said Dawson.

The end product was a brush with sinking bristles that could be cleaned quickly and without the aid of separately sold tools. Another of the capstone projects was imagined by a student who spent time on a roof for his summer job. Dawson explained that the student mentioned trouble marshaling his tools when on an angled roof. So the student’s group designed a portable, adjustable table that can be used on any roof.

“This thing can adjust to any angle,” said Dawson. “You can put supplies on it and it will always be a flat surface that you can put your tools on.”

Other capstones included inventions like shoes with interchangeable tops or helmet visors designed to provide better vision during weather events. All of the projects were designed around solving real-world problems, said Dawson, and all were original creations.

“They had to do a lot of documentation on that to find out what existing products are,” Dawson said.

The efforts began with a hefty amount of patent research. Students had to look into what patents exist for products that would serve a similar purpose to their goals. If something already exists that can solve the student’s problem, said Dawson, then there’s no need for them to solve it again.

“First of all, you’ve got to research existing patents so I have to teach them about patent searches,” he said. “We do all of the patent searches. They have to document their sources in APA format.”

Beyond looking for patents of their exact idea, students also are tasked with finding the closest competition to see if there are large enough margins between what their capstone proposes and what already exists on the market. If their idea is unique, the real work begins. Students start by brainstorming everything they will need to build their capstone. Keeping costs reasonable is a factor.

“If you’re trying to do a design and you do a design on paper without taking into consideration, what are your materials, availability, what kind of machines do you have to do it then you get a rude awakening,” Dawson said.

The pre-engineering students are able to take advantage of the other classes and materials at WTHS that gives them access to things like machinery and welding. For projects that need plastics, a 3-D printer is available, which Dawson explained can craft a three-dimensional model out of anything a student can draw on paper.

Materials are not the only consideration. Students are also required to talk with experts in a field related to their product or engineering to get an outside opinion on whether their design makes sense and would be useful.

“You prepare a proposal like you’re going to somebody for money to build this,” said Dawson. “What are you going to tell them? So they have to put together a whole design proposal and funding request.”

The multiple tiers of the capstone project, especially those dealing with requirements beyond just designing a product, mean that the course is applicable for anyone, according to Dawson, even those who don’t think that they will want to pursue further education or a career in a field of engineering.

“Not all will go into engineering, but we try to show them the different technical careers that are available,” he said. “That way they can make an informed choice by the time they make their college applications.”

The pre-engineering program at WTHS benefits everyone from future business majors to medical students, said Dawson, adding that nearly any field can benefit from enhanced problem solving skills.

Looking forward, Dawson expects pre-engineering to begin at younger and younger ages. By sparking an interest while students are in middle school, he explained that engineering studies in high school become more appealing and easier to transition into.