Engineers solve problems, and Alcoa High School teacher Shawn Kerr ensures his students experience real-world work.

Kerr encourages students to find something to solve, “something that makes life easier for you or someone else,” he said.

Sophomores in his Engineering Design 1 course already have proven they can do just that, using their creativity, CAD (computer-aided design) software and the school’s 3D printers.

Soon Kerr hopes to open their services to the wider community, giving people an opportunity to present challenges for students.

“We were spending a lot of time trying to find problems, when problems could find us,” he explained. So a new Tornado Engineering website launched last month lets AHS staff submit requests to the “3D Design Problem Bank.”

Eventually Kerr plans to open it up to other Alcoa City Schools and then the wider community.

Creativity at work

When Kerr challenged sophomores to identify their own engineering challenges, they came up with ideas he had never considered.

Robbie Soulier designed a small device that converts standard gaming controllers for people who may be unable to use both hands. A cap covers a joystick and extends out so the player can move both sticks with one thumb.

It took a few prototypes to develop one that is comfortable to use, but with his design the piece can be 3D printed for a couple of bucks, compared with a specialized controller that could cost $200.

Bryson O’Hara designed a clip to hang a baseball cap off a backpack, instead of stuffing it inside. When a cap doesn’t have an adjustable strap in the back, there is no area to clip. His solution is a rectangular device with small teeth in a slot that the hat brim slips between. Put his device on a carabiner, and you can clip a cap to a backpack, belt loop or somewhere else.

Ethan Simpson didn’t even have to leave his bed to find an idea. Reaching to place a beverage can on a coaster, he decided a coaster attached to the can would be better.

His coaster slips on a standard beverage can and stays put. An internal ring not only catches condensation but also allows a better fit and tighter seal, he explained.

The engineering design process relies on trying and refining products, but Ethan proved a variation on a well-known adage from carpenters. He said he measured three times and, “When I printed it, it came out perfect.”

Paige Breeden developed a hairbrush cleaner, a comb-like wedges that does the job without the user having to touch the hair.

“This is one of my favorites because it’s outside of the norm of what I would have ever thought of,” Kerr said, noting that he hasn’t used a brush in years.

During the past school year Brendan Sugg, now a senior, designed a electrical plug extender that is easy to grasp, with a hole in the center that a user can slip a finger through for an even better hold. “I imagine selling these at Walmart for five in a pack,” Kerr said, because people could use them on multiple electrical plugs in a home.

More ideas

Already AHS staff have posted to the website challenges for the students, from English teacher Roman Lay requesting custom designed switch plates to Coach Brian Gossett looking for a way to mount score clocks on the wrestling room wall during practices.

Assistant Principal Chelsi Long noted the new state law requiring drivers to keep their hands off mobile phones in requesting a universal phone holder that students and staff could use. “Some of those products exist, but they’re not necessarily cheap, and they’re not always functional,” Kerr explained.

He hopes that people who can’t find a solution already to a problem they encounter will eventually go to the website and give the students a chance to tackle it. Perhaps four or five will develop different prototypes to offer.

He’s also is talking with marketing teacher Joy Gornto about having her students work with his to pitch the products.

With a wide range of opportunities, Kerr wants his students to build a portfolio of their engineering designs while they are still in high school. By passing a test they already can earn an industry recognized certification in Solidworks CAD software before they graduate. He has fourth-year students interning at DENSO and working on part designs because of their engineering experience.

“We’re trying to get these guys into future careers where they’re doing meaningful work,” Kerr said, and he knows that solving real-world problems motivates them in school.

Amy Beth earned her degree from West Virginia. She joined The Daily Times in 2016 on the education beat covering Alcoa, Maryville and Blount County school systems.

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