A journey of transformative discovery may begin with a single step, but even eighth graders know that a good set of wheels will get you there faster.
For the last few months, 40 Jefferson County middle school students have tackled a challenge set by Augusta-based Club Car Inc., an international golf car manufacturer, to custom design a 14-inch wheel for a new consumer line.
These students, ranging in age from 12 to 14, absorbed advanced algebra and physics and applied them in a practical application, but also had to master a complex three-dimensional modeling software adult engineers use on the job.
What started as a project for a few became the first leg of an adventure to map a new way of teaching and learning that will impact students for years.
This is the third time in recent years the company has reached out to partner with a CSRA school on a project of this nature. Jefferson County was chosen this year.
Tawana Jackson, Operational Excellence Change Agent for Club Car, explained that the challenge is a community outreach project that grew out of Club Car’s Women’s Employee Network collaborating with the Black Employee Network and Veterans Employee Resource Group.
“The primary goal is to help open the eyes of current state-based education to project-based learning as it relates to STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Math) in a real-life scenario,” Jackson said. “For us, as a business, it helps expose kids to an early interest in STEAM and build that competency as it translates into increased employability skills in the workforce.”
Jackson said that the Club Car employees who worked directly with the students and the upper management at the company felt like the investment in the community was solid and valuable.
“It’s important to our country,” she said. “Here in Augusta the cyber fields are growing and getting that exposure early on is really important.”
Tim Graven, a manager at the Augusta plant and Jackson’s supervisor, pointed to how the project takes subjects the students have been learning for years and applies them to real-world, industry-relevant and career building challenges.
“I think education-wise we tend to think of the classroom, but that application part of it is critical, getting hands on and going and doing it, you realize you do use math in the real world. And we do, we absolutely do,” Graven said.
In addition to Club Car, the school system also reached out to other professionals and found a valuable resource in Augusta University’s Dr. Ashley Gess, an expert in STEAM education. Dr. Gess worked with Jefferson County’s students and teachers, introducing them to engineering focused problem solving models.
Among the cadre of industry experts was Bryan Wilson, who has been a design engineer at Club Car for about four years. Before that he worked for General Motors. He said that he was late discovering his passion.
“If I had recognized it earlier and had the right help I would have been more aggressive in pursuing physics, calculus and trigonometry,” Wilson said. “I ended up having to work really hard to catch up because I had been pursuing other things.”
He was one of the first Club Car employees Jackson recruited for her project.
“She championed this,” he said. “She wanted to go out and impact the community.”
He met with the students on their first visit to the Club Car plant, shortly before they toured the manufacturing line and saw how a cart is built a piece at a time.
First, the students had to gain an understanding of what goes into a solid design, how something complex is often built from simple components. Every wheel had to have the same sized hub and specific places for the holes where lug nuts would attach it to the car. They would design their own spokes, but they had to be strong enough to support the vertical load. They had to consider torque and centrifugal force. Most of these were new concepts.
“There are some of these kids I’ve seen who are wired for it. They are meant to be engineers,” Wilson said. “It’s the way they think, the way they look at the problems, you can just tell they have a passion for it. You can see them learning and getting excited about it.”
The 3D imaging software the students learned to manipulate to build their designs is very similar to the programs Wilson uses at work.
“When they are working on these wheels they are having to imagine what that wheel looks like in three dimensions,” Wilson said. “The process of cutting into that wheel in their minds, learning to do that, it’s exercising their imaginations. They are learning to use their imaginations to solve all sort of problems. To understand things and people from different perspectives.”
In addition to designing the wheel itself, the students had to develop researched marketing plans, compare material types and run cost analyses, investigate competitors, and eventually present their plans and their wheels to a panel of Club Car executives who asked tough questions before choosing a winning design.
Beth Haynes, Jefferson County’s coordinator for this project, admits that Club Car’s challenge was daunting. She knew it was asking a lot of her students. But she says she knew they would give it their best.
What she did not know, is just how much seeing them learn would change her as a teacher.
“My heart is full,” Haynes told Club Car’s employees after her students gave their final presentations. “In a matter of weeks I have seen these children change. I’ve taught some of them since the fourth grade but the opportunity that you have given them has changed them. It’s not about what we finish with, it’s about what we learn by doing this project. These children are developing into leaders before my eyes. These kids have hope.”
After presenting their final products, complete with 3D model, marketing plan, cost analysis and proposed profit, Club Car officials deliberated and chose their top three wheel designs. Each member of the top team, The Weekend Warriors, was given an electronic tablet.
Haynes said that while the judges were impressed with all of the work the kids did, certain collaborations stood out to them.
“The difference between first and second place was 2.5 points,” she said. “It was the marketing plan that really pushed the first team over and the way they presented it, suggesting that they could sell a business model that cart purchasers could use to make a profit themselves.”
In two years Jefferson County will complete its new consolidated middle school and Jefferson County School Superintendent Dr. Molly Howard said that every teacher who wants to teach in that school should expect to be STEAM endorsed.
The school system already has an agreement with Augusta University to provide this training in the county so teachers do not have to travel.
“This project validated the direction that we had envisioned,” Dr. Howard said.
“It is inquiry-based learning. It doesn’t have to be wheels. It can be any real world problem that students attempt to solve by applying the standards set by the state. So students have to become innovative, thinking leaders. It brings relevance to education. The new three Rs are rigor, relevance and relationships.”