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Powered by hydraulics

Students learn about force, pressure by building their own machines

Kenowa Hills — It is a simple concept: select a food item, press the corresponding button, and down comes the item. Until you have to figure out how to make it work.

“I see now what it takes to be an engineer,” said eighth-grader Wexly Eggleston “The amount of ideas you have to come up with is crazy.”

The vending machine that Wexly and her partners, fellow eighth-graders Leeann Proper and Kyla Brown, created was one of about 10 projects on hydraulics presented by students in the district’s STEM Academy. 

Launched in 2019, the STEM Academy’s purpose is to give students the educational and real-life experiences they need so that when they graduate, whether from high school or college, they have skills to enter the workforce. The program is offered to both middle- and high-school students. Students attended two-hour blocks, learning content and working on projects focused on science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). 

Force, Pressure, and Efficiency

The first project for the eighth-graders was presented on Dec. 2 to students, staff and school leaders. The purpose was to create a hydraulically operated machine that can meet a purpose. More specifically, it had to have at least two sets of controls, one of which uses a force multiplier or divider, said Steve Feutz ,who with Katie Bush is the STEM Academy teacher. Students were evaluated on those requirements, as well as quality and ingenuity, and how they applied physical science standards of force, work, efficiency and pressure.  

The vending machine had a series of buttons that were syringes that, when pushed, moved water through a tube, which forced the lever to push the food item out of its spot. The item dropped, and Wexley useda second syringe to move water through another tube. That action pushed two syringes attached to the door, causing the door to open. Wexley explained that the action followed touchless covid protocols.

“We came up with the design by watching a claw machine video,” she said. “We thought of the candy machine, which is something that had never been done before. It was something new, and a fresh idea.”

Across the room, eighth-grader Caleb Kahn demonstrated his team’s double-decker pond claw. Through a series of pulling and pushing various syringe-style buttons, the claw would lower, pick up a duck, lift and deposit the duck through an opening. 

Kenowa Hills Board of Education member Erin LaBotz looked on, and said “I think by being able to use their creativity, it excites the students about the projects and expands the learning so much more beyond the assignment.”

Learning on the Fly

“The students have a lot of pride and confidence because this is something they created,” Bush said. “They came up with the design, problem solved, built it and saw it completed.”

Feutz added that he has noticed, especially during the presentation portion, that students who don’t typically speak up in class are standing up, talking to students and people they don’t know about their project. He said students also are learning how to be adaptable.

“At the last minute, we had to change the syringes for the buttons to larger ones,” Wexly said, explaining that the smaller syringes did not produce enough water pressure to push the items.

As for Sean Centers and his team, the goal was to have their mechanical arm, powered by a syringe-hydraulics system, draw something. The result was they could make it draw a line and pour water, but “we discovered we have no way to sharpen the pencil,” Sean said, adding that they hot-glued the pencil into the arm.

Meanwhile eighth-grader Cameron Bowen and his team demonstrated a can-crushing machine that used syringes to move water, causing a board to push down on the can.

“It was a lot of trial and error in building,” Cameron said.

Wexly agreed, and added that learning goes beyond the mechanics of the project.

“Also for me, I am used to being a leader, so also having to do teamwork, listening and accepting other people’s ideas was another lesson I learned.”

Explore more unique video stories of students learning, interesting school programs and educators working to help all children succeed.

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Joanne Bailey-Boorsma
Joanne Bailey-Boorsma
Joanne Bailey-Boorsma is a reporter covering Kent ISD, Godwin Heights, Kelloggsville, Forest Hills and Comstock Park. The salutatorian for the Hartland Public Schools class of 1985, she changed her colors from blue and maize to green and white by attending Michigan State University, where she majored in journalism. Joanne moved to the Grand Rapids area in 1989, where she started her journalism career at the Advance Newspapers. She later became the editor for On-the-Town magazine, a local arts and entertainment publication. Her eldest daughter is a nurse, working in Holland, and her youngest attends Oakland University. Both are graduates from Byron Center High School. She is a volunteer for the Van Singel Fine Arts Advisory Board and the Kent District Library. In her free time, Joanne enjoys spending time with her family, checking out local theater and keeping up with all the exchange students they have hosted through the years. Read Joanne's full bio


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