Kentucky Promise Zone challenges students to give back to their community

July 12, 2018

Students from Kentucky's Promise Zone participate in a team discussion in preparation for the Shark Tank style competition.Students from rural areas in Kentucky visited the University last week, taking part in the Kentucky Promise Zone, a program developed to inspire high school students in rural counties. Students were encouraged to engage in collaborative efforts aimed at helping spur scientific growth in local communities. Now in its third year, the KPZ culminated their week in a Shark Tank style competition, which saw students pairing off in groups and attempting to develop a product for presentation at the end of their week.

The camp was hosted by the J.B. Speed School of Engineering and housed in in the Additive Manufacturing Competency Center by Ed Tackett, Director of Educational Programs in Additive Manufacturing.

Presented on the final day of the camp, the student projects were assessed based on a number of factors beyond just the initial design, from the aesthetic qualities of the work, to the application of their efforts to the greater community. The winners took home a trophy, a 3D printed Great White Shark set on a blue pedestal.

Throughout their time together, Tackett and his team helped guide students not only through the manufacturing and technical aspects of the process, but through empathy training, which explores the motives behind their inventions.

“If you develop a product, why are you developing a product? How does your consumer view your product? And we teach them to role shift and try to understand why would somebody buy my product?” said Tackett. “That’s what the empathy is about, understanding the driving factors in your community.”

During the first two days of camp, Tackett and his student staff, Kate Schneidau, a senior Mechanical Engineering student, and Diandra Sawyer, a sophomore in Chemical Engineering, walked the visiting students through the logistics required for the competition, which included some CAD and fabrication skills.

Beyond that Tackett and his team served as mentors, allowing the students to develop their work in a collaborative environment, offering support and assistance where needed, but otherwise allowing space for their ideas to blossom.

Schneidau, who helped students to learn the logistics of using equipment or programs like SolidWorks, saw first hand how the group engaged in their individual projects. Pairing off into groups, she noted that each student found a way to participate that played to their strengths, whether that was during the idea phase, the design modeling, or in pitching their product. 

Students from Kentucky's Promise Zone participate in a the product design phase in preparation for the Shark Tank style competition."I was surprised by the level of ingenuity these students had during the idea generation phase. The laser-lance, for example, came from the idea the group had to make their own lightsaber. The toilet pedal flush (which they named the Prolou) came from the desire of a group member to avoid having to touch a potential germ covered lever," says Schneidau. "The students were not shy about showing their ambition for their products."

Students were expected to build a business and marketing case, the product, and the pitch for a project that each group had self-selected, to allow teams not only agency over their decision making, but to allow them to engage in work that they find fulfilling.

“The good thing about high school students, is that they have no preconceived notions that they can’t do it,” said Tacket. “They’re going to increasingly get downward pressure to make the money, and I think at this phase, there is a lot more freedom to explore these things. They’re not constantly thinking about how to make money.”

Designed to enrich students from rural areas, the Kentucky Promise Zone offers opportunities to reach out to interested individuals and give them the skills they need to make enhance their own community. Tackett is optimistic that encouraging open ended projects that utilize engineering methods, will continue to spark innovation that they can take home to their respective towns.

With each project varying from student to student, some skew to the novel, like a cellphone case or a device to help alleviate unnecessary drink spills while driving, to the comparatively more functional or long-term projects like a device to help people with disabilities flush their toilet, or solar panel development. 

“What I really want the University of Louisville to do is to be an enabler for those kids. We have students here who have already said, ‘I want to be a bioengineer,’” said Tackett. “They’re dreaming and looking big.”