SEF grants support technical skills: R2D2 Ignites Passion for Engineering
John Niebergall has recruited a lovable little robot to get students interested in science, math, and engineering.
Niebergall, Engineering and Architecture teacher at Sherwood High School, received two Sherwood Education Foundation (SEF) grants to help students build a full-scale replica of R2D2, the feisty robot from the Star Wars universe. He got plans off the Internet and funded the $4,000 project with grants from SEF and contributions from local businesses.
SHS has had a growing engineering and robotics program for years, and R2D2 is the latest addition. A 2011 SEF grant funded materials for the basic R2D2 chassis, and a 2012 grant provided funding for the electronic “guts” to animate him. Last year, students cut out and assembled R2’s body, and this year the SHS engineering class is busy creating the electronics and making additional body parts—using equipment that SEF funded in previous years: a 3D printer, laser cutter, and computer numerical control (CNC) plasma cutter.
Niebergall’s students have worked collaboratively with Portland Community College to do CNC manufacturing and Century High School to manufacture needed integrated circuit boards. Local companies Mentor Graphics, LPK USA, and Tammy’s Hobbies all contributed funding, materials, and expertise.
By building R2D2, SHS students learn valuable workplace skills such as CNC, metal fabrication, electronics, problem-solving, teamwork, scheduling, meeting deadlines, and communication. When Niebergall showed the in-progress R2 to his engineering classes, a dozen kids signed up for the after-school robotics club, which has grown to three teams.
R2 has also been a great ambassador to younger grades. Last year, the high school robotics club held a robotics competition for Sherwood fourth and fifth graders and used the occasion to wow kids and their parents with all that’s going on at the high school. They showed them the 3-D printer and plasma cutter, toured the wood shop, let them take apart computers, and designed video games. “They saw that kids just a few years older than they were doing very cool things,” says Eric Campbell, Sherwood parent.
As an applications engineer at Mentor Graphics, Campbell sees a powerful connection between what Niebergall is doing and what companies like Mentor need. “Projects like R2D2 really engage kids and let them apply math and science to something real,” he says. “Engineering is all about making stuff, and companies want employees who are creative thinkers and problem-solvers. That’s what’s going on here. John’s classes are very entrepreneurial. Kids are solving tough problems and watching their ideas come to life.”
R2D2 has also made appearances at Cruisin’ Sherwood and Robin Hood Festival. “Everyone knows R2D2,” Niebergall adds. One of Niebergall’s next goals is to create a T-shirt launcher that R2 will pull behind him as he rolls into a gym assembly and shoots T-shirts into the stands. “We want students to say, ‘I wanna work on that,’” Niebergall says.
With continuing help from the Sherwood Education Foundation, I have no doubt that kids will continue to say just that.