UIU grad mentors high school team to ‘World’ title

An Upper Iowa University graduate continues to mentor five West Central High School juniors to new heights as part of the 2015 Real World Design Challenge (RWDC). The students from the high school located in Maynard, Iowa, recently won first place in the Iowa RWDC held in Cedar Rapids and are now preparing for the National RWDC to be held in Washington, D.C., in November.

The RWDC is an annual competition that provides high school students the opportunity to work on real world engineering challenges in a team environment. Each year, participating teams are asked to address a challenge that confronts the nation’s leading industries. In an effort to maintain crop health safely and efficiently, the 2015 RWDC challenged the students to identify a strategy and create an unmanned aircraft system design to make variable rate pesticide applications.

Regina Hoffman, an agronomy account relationship manager for Viafield cooperative, was invited by West Central RWDC team member Ethan Fink and science teacher Julie George to help the local high school team with their project. The 2014 UIU graduate was employed with Viafield after initially serving an internship, required by UIU to receive her degree, at the cooperative’s Clermont facility.

Hoffman’s current duties at the nearby Viafield office in Randalia now include providing agronomy and precision agricultural support and coordinating the cooperative’s UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle) program to assist local producers with crop health. Viafield is the only company in Iowa to be granted a FAA Section 333 exemption, which allows the cooperative to operate a drone for precision agriculture purposes.

“Not only was the West Central project a perfect fit for our UAV program at Viafield, and another way for the co-op to provide support to the community, but I like being involved with area youth projects and programs,” said  Hoffman, who graduated from UIU with a double major in ag business/environmental science. “Ironically, Mrs. George’s husband, Dr. Nigel George, was my physics professor at Upper Iowa.”

In addition to Fink, Hoffman mentored West Central team members Bailey Bergman, Jack McDonough, Alexander Hepperle and Sam Hepperle on a weekly basis from November 2014 to April 2015. Part of the collaboration included discussing unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) platforms, work flow, and agronomic factors that would play a part in the students’ RWDC project.

From these sessions, the high school juniors formulated the most appropriate system and operational methods, while creating a business plan to support their program design. The goal of the program design was to reduce chemical applications and related costs, and to maintain profitability. The project required utilizing physics, math, GIS (geographic information system) technology, imagery, economics agronomics, and critical thinking skills by the students.

“Working in a STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics)-related field provides a lot of unique challenges. There was a lot of trial and error involved in our project,” admitted McDonough.

“We quickly learned the importance of time management. Being able to get each of us in together in the same classroom, at the same time, proved to be a challenge in itself,” added Bergman, who serves as the team leader.

“The biggest resource that Regina provided was her vast experience. She was always there to help us stay on the right path,” McDonough continued.

“The knowledge she provided in regard to drones and formulating spray applications was more than we ever could have imagined,” interjected Fink.

The students’ teacher was equally appreciative of the support provided not only by Hoffman, but also the mentor’s employer.

“The fact we had a local business working on the exact same nature of projects was substantially beneficial to us. Viafield was extremely supportive of us throughout this entire process,” said George. “The results of the project were all driven by the conversations between Regina and the students. She allowed them to formulate the questions and guided them in discovering the answers. They received a firsthand look at how a professional handles themselves.”

George’s personal goals not only included having the students develop the entire project themselves, but also placing them in situations where there were no right or wrong answers, to simply research all questions and proposals fully.

In earning the Iowa RWDC title, the teenagers were required to submit an engineering notebook to the judges and provide a 15-minute presentation, which was followed by a five-minute question and answer period. Seventy percent of the team’s score was compiled from the notebook, while the remaining 30 percent derived from the final presentation.

“I was really excited for each of these students. It was their project every step of the away. I would throw an idea or suggestion to them from time to time, but it was up to them to accept it,” said George proudly, while noting this was West Central’s first time entering the contest. “I believe they learned the importance of time management, developing an eye for detail, and to produce a professional presentation. There overall persistence won them this award.”

The challenges the West Central students now face in preparation for the National RWDC are an extension of the recently completed project. The engineering report and presentation will include taking into account wind speeds, formulating the success rate of chemical spraying applications, and writing a waiver request to the FAA to approve a UAV application.

With the continuing guidance of their science teacher and a newfound mentor, the students are discovering that the sky’s the limit when utilizing the various STEM skills they learn in school.

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