Final Immaculate Heart Project Caps Their Success as Student Engineers

Published : Wednesday, May 31, 2017 | 2:32 PM

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In one of their last classes of the year, students in Immaculate Heart High School’s “Engineering Your World” class literally watched their final projects go up in the air—30 feet in the air, in fact!

The project in question was an aerial imaging probe, which the students raised to the required height with five large helium balloons in order to test the efficacy of their designs.

The probe was a complex piece of equipment, built to withstand repeated drops from a height of approximately nine meters, or 30 feet. In addition to designing and constructing a protective shell, and a mechanism to control the probe’s descent, students built and programmed a circuit to control an onboard camera and an altimeter. With the circuit, they set the probe to activate its camera at a certain height, and take photos of its descent.

This project was truly the culmination of a year of innovation, and it required students to use all the skills they’ve gained over the course of the new class, which was introduced for the first time this past school year. From the start, when students were tasked with designing and constructing a simple rubber band-powered cardboard car, to creating functional pinhole cameras and aerial probes, this course has challenged the students to think like engineers.

And no wonder—the class was designed by engineers, NASA engineers, in fact, in partnership with the University of Texas, Austin. Science Chair and course instructor Rob Vondrak spent two weeks last summer training in the curriculum in order to offer the class at Immaculate Heart.

According to Vondrak, the students who signed up for the course really rose to the occasion, even as the class departed from typical classroom assignments. For instance, in each task, students were given few explicit instructions, rather than the detailed rubrics other courses provide. This intentional ambiguity led them to work collaboratively and independently in order to solve the problems presented to them.

“Students kept talking and asking questions, like engineers do, to determine each step in the process,” Vondrak said. “These brainstorming techniques helped them arrive at a decision.”

And as they progressed in the class, students used the lessons they had learned in the previous assignments to help them navigate new problems.

“Each project gave students the skills they would need for the next one,” Vondrak said. “The entire way we learned how engineers solve problems through the engineering design process.”

Students have even applied these skills to other areas of their life.

“Some seniors have told me that they used a Pugh chart to help them decide colleges,” Vondrak said. A Pugh chart, or decision matrix, allows an individual to score alternative solutions to a problem on a set of criteria. The scores can then be compared, letting the user to clearly see the overall effectiveness of one solution against another.

“Engineering Your World” has given students the opportunity to not only design and build many interesting devices, but also to develop a new way of examining problems and finding solutions, said Vondrak. “Teaching the class this year has been a great learning experience for me,” he added. “We’ve accomplished a lot.”

About Immaculate Heart

Founded in 1906, Immaculate Heart is located at 5515 Franklin Avenue, at the corner of Western Avenue, in the Los Feliz foothills near Griffith Park in Hollywood. The school educates young women in grades sixth through 12th. The school has a long and distinguished history, with more than 10,000 graduates. Today’s student body of more than 700 young women is both geographically and ethnically diverse, drawing on students from throughout Los Angeles County. Last year, virtually 100 percent of Immaculate Heart graduates matriculated to colleges, including the most prestigious schools in the country.


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