The University of Arizona

Using Engineering to Help an Otter Tweet

By Jill Goetz for the College of Engineering, June 16, 2014
Team Tweeting Otter: Engineering 102 students at Tucson's Salpointe High School.
Team Tweeting Otter: Engineering 102 students at Tucson's Salpointe High School.

With teachers, professional engineers and college faculty to mentor them, high school students enrolled in the College of Engineering's introductory engineering course have created projects that are helping the Tucson community.

Some high school students in the University of Arizona's Engineering 102 course, an adapted version of the required introductory college course, have created projects that are directly helping members of the community. They're participating in Engineering Projects in Community Service High – or EPICS – a program that originated at Purdue University.

With local engineers acting as their mentors, students design, test and build a project throughout their senior year. In the process, they can make a useful product for a local organization and its clients. Along the way, they also make a better-informed decision of whether they want to become engineers.

On April 30, Salpointe Catholic High School hosted an EPICS Showcase on campus for students, parents, mentors and partnering organizations. Four groups of Salpointe seniors demonstrated their creations for local organizations: Ben's Bells, the Physics Factory, AIRES and the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum.

The largest group, comprising four male and two female seniors, collaborated on a "tweeting otter" project for the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum. Inspired by the "tweeting honey badger" on South Africa's Johannesburg Zoo website, staff members at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum wanted to be able to send tweets from their resident river otter to attract a younger crowd to the website and reach people who are unable to visit the museum. The project included researching and purchasing motion-sensor cameras for installation around the otter's living area; learning the Raspberry Pi system – a low-cost, credit card-sized computer – to enable transmission of the images to an email address; and setting up a Twitter site at the Desert Museum's website where staff could send otter tweets with photos out to the world.

Two students took on a project to help Ben's Bells, which encourages Tucsonans to paint ceramic bells and hang them from trees as a reminder to show kindness. The organization needed an attractive and portable display rack for its merchandise, so Salpointe seniors David Norris and Austin Parslow created a treelike display made of polished wood and rebar.

"I was attracted to EPICS because I wanted to get experience working with a real organization outside of school," Norris said.

Steven Spooner helped create a chaotic waterwheel for the Physics Factory, a nonprofit organization that brings science demonstrations into local schools.

"Our goal is simple," he said. "We want little kids to look at the waterwheel and get the idea that fluid dynamics is cool."

Another group of students was charged with building a strong, safe and portable wheelchair swing for the disabled residents of AIRES, an Arizona-based social service agency. The students received help from Creative Machines, a local art fabrication company. At the EPICS Showcase, students watched their creation in action, when a disabled client of AIRES rode the swing for the first time.

Presiding over the EPICS Showcase was Salpointe science teacher Sarah Streb.

"EPICS is the hardest but most important thing I do as a teacher," she said. "Many of the students develop real-world skills they would not have otherwise developed. They see what it means to work on a project with a real customer, with hard deadlines, and with real-life consequences. They realize they are capable of so much more than they give themselves credit for."

The American Society for Engineering Education recently recognized UA’s Engineering 102 course with the 2014 Best Practices in K-12 and University Partnerships award. Read more here.

EPICS Slideshow