Highland News Leader

HHS seniors gain summer job with PLTW engineering project

See the project that lifted these HHS seniors to a summer internship

Video: This year's Project Lead the Way engineering seniors demonstrate their M.E.C. lift, their capstone project at Highland High School in Southern Illinois, near Belleville, IL near St. Louis, MO.
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Video: This year's Project Lead the Way engineering seniors demonstrate their M.E.C. lift, their capstone project at Highland High School in Southern Illinois, near Belleville, IL near St. Louis, MO.

This year's Highland High School engineering seniors not only made the grade with their capstone project, but a gained summer internship with it as well.

Highland High School seniors Cole Becker, Evan Herman and Michael Riffel gave their end-of-the-year presentation for the school's Project Lead the Way program to a crowd of about 30 people in the Highland City Council chambers at City Hall on May 10.

"After you hear these three guys talk, you are going to realize they are smarter at 18 than I am at — well, let's just say older than 18,"said Chris Durbin, the students' engineering teacher.

The moment the students walked up to present their handmade MEC lift prototype was the pinnacle of a year's worth of calculations, designs, failures and triumphs. But mostly, Durbin said, it was an example of what Project Lead the Way can do for students.

The PLTW program utilizes a series of classes where high school students around the nation learn about science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). The end goal of PLTW is to help students gain exposure to STEM and encourage them to pursue careers in these fields in college.

Becker, Herman and Riffel are now apart of about 50 HHS graduates who have gone through the program. The students enroll in one engineering class every year of their high school career. The classes go over engineering design, development, civil engineering and architecture. But, the end goal is to get to the final class — Engineering Design and Development.

"Not many seniors take this class after they take the first three years, because it is very difficult. It takes a lot of work," Becker said.

The goal of the class is for the students to use applied knowledge and find to solution to a common problem.

Inspired by Riffel's yearly family vacations to Florida, the seniors chose to take on a project to help travelers, or anyone loading something into their vehicle, by creating an a invention that can carry objects, like a wagon or a palate load, on the back of a car or truck hitch.

But, even with a plan drawn up, the students would soon learn it would take multiple designs before their calculations added up.

To pitch their first design, a ratchet-operated lifting system, the students paired with Highland Machine, a local custom fabricating and metal finishing company.

"They put it in a very kind way, that our design wasn't good enough," Becker said.

The company relayed the design was impractical and too expensive for mass production. But, instead of getting discouraged, Durbin said his students went right back to the drawing board and formulated their current prototype.

The current lift operates off of a crank and pulley system, which helps to bring its iron bars, used to hold the load, up at a 90-degree angle. The design allows for trunks and truck beds to be opened with the device cranked all the way up. Currently, the students said the prototype can hold about 60 pounds, but it is their end goal to get the final design to hold 400 pounds.

"I feel relieved that we actually got a working prototype and were able to test it," Herman said.

The students gave their invention a tryout on Riffel's full-sized truck and Durbin's mid-sized truck, and they took it out on the road for a 10-mile test drive.

"It did phenomenally riding behind the truck," Riffel said.

But the real test was bringing the device back to Highland Machine.

"I thought it was really well done. I really thought they did a great job," said Kevin Hemann, the company's senior vice president.

So much so that the company offered the seniors summer internships. They will begin work on June 1, and through their work at the company, the students said they hope to pursue their project further.

"Who knows, maybe they will be able to market it some day," Hemann said.

After the summer, all three students will attend a college to pursue some type of engineering field. Becker will attend Iowa State University to pursue a degree in aerospace engineering, Herman will got to Southern Illinois University Edwardsville to study civil engineering, and Riffel will study petroleum engineering at Missouri University of Science and Technology.

Though they might be heading to separate schools and down to different paths of engineering, the students agreed that they may not have ever considered an engineering career if it was not for PLTW or Durbin.

"Thank you for that," Riffel told his teacher.