For ten years, I tried to partner my Engineering 215: Introduction to Design sophomore engineering course with a public grade school. As someone who was mostly failed by the U.S. public school system and who dropped out before my sophomore year, I am acutely interested in public education. However, public schools are typically risk-averse, and, year after year, I heard that such a partnership was unlikely. Instead, we partnered with non-profits that were willing to take a risk on sophomore level university students. We completed hundreds of projects with these partners and eventually landed some charter schools (which can be nimbler than traditional U.S. public schools) to start building trust in collaboratively built education.
Finally, in 2014, a brave counseling services director, Trevor Hammons, and principal, Jan Schmidt, from Zane Middle School decided to take a chance on us. Zane Middle School is in Eureka, California and serves youth from grades six through eight. More than three-fourths of its students are on an assisted lunch program. Zane looked just like the schools from my childhood. Concrete, steel, asphalt, fence, and dirt engendered the feel of a prison. The outside had that cold industrial feel as if students are supposed to be uniform products of an unyielding machine, but inside the cold stark walls, inspired teachers and future-thinking administrators bustled.
That year, we took on nine projects to build learning apparatuses and to transform their concrete and metal campus into a more natural, inviting, and thriving campus. Students worked directly with teachers to build projects such as a songbird refuge, an upgraded garden, edible landscaping, and a rainwater harvesting system.
The rainwater harvesting system was needed to support the gardens and edible landscaping, educate students on sustainable water practices and be another source of emergency water for natural disaster preparedness (Eureka is in a seismically active region). Together the students worked with staff and teachers to determine the top criteria of safety, ease, durability, cost, and educational value. The students designed a robust 500-gallon dry system with easy access to the gardens and edible landscaping (Figure 5-8 and Figure 5-9). However, after reviewing prototypes, the teachers and staff found a critical problem, a problem that would either break the system in less than a year or cause other issues.
The problem was with the conveyance system, which used a pipe leading from the gutter to the tank. The pipe would be high, but low enough that an enterprising youth could jump up and grab onto it in a covert attempt to access the roof. The team members and staff reviewed various ways to mitigate the problem, such as making the pipe less appealing, creating a wet (instead of dry) system where the conveyance pipe would be buried below ground, and moving the storage against the wall. All these solutions were less desirable with regard to durability or ease. Finally, the team found an exciting and simple innovation.
The innovation was a zip-tie and a flex fitting. The zip-tie connects the conveyance pipe to the gutter and a flex fitting at the other end of the pipe allows for bending (Figure 2-9). So now, if a student jumps up and grabs the pipe, instead of the gutter or roof breaking, a 5-cent zip-tie break. Over the last four years, the zip-tie has needed to be replaced only three times. This type of important but simple innovation only comes from working closely with your client and constituents, building empathy, and understanding the users.
That year, the local media quoted the principal as saying:
“I am very impressed with the quality of the projects designed by these college sophomores. We look forward to deepening our partnership with HSU in the coming years.”
~Jan Schmidt, Principal~
That is exactly what has happened. These projects have been an incredible success and have led to years of HSU-Zane partnerships and a transforming campus. Due to Zane Middle School’s push toward a more inspirational STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Math) school, including Zane’s dedication to working with HSU students to build sustainable infrastructure, Zane received the Gold Ribbon Award from the California State Board of Education.