BY CAROL ROEHM
Leave it to a bunch of Danville High School freshmen and sophomores to build marble sorters that impressed even their college counterparts.
Earlier this month, the high school’s Principles of Engineering class placed first in the class projects division at the University of Illinois Engineering Open House.
The marble sorter project consisted of producing a computer program using ROBO Pro software to operate a device to sort 10 marbles into two groups depending whether the marbles were clear or opaque.
The device, which was built out of Fishertechnik parts — which are fancy, motorized Legos — was modeled after industrial sorting mechanisms that can be found at a recycling plant.
It’s a perennial project that has been tackled by DHS science teacher Beth Chamberlain’s Principle of Engineering class for the past six or seven years.
“We’ve always done really well with it,” she said of the project. “There are 12 different categories, but class project is the division I place them in. We’re the only high school team that competes.”
Make no mistake, though, the project is no easy task. For starters, the students — who work in groups of three or four — are given only three weeks to complete the project.
“It’s overwhelming at first,” Chamberlain said. “I teach them the skills they’ll need leading up to the project, but they start out 100 percent from scratch. They have to figure it out.
“It’s very challenging, and one thing they learn is how to be a team player,” she said. “I love to stand back and watch. It’s such a team project.”
Chamberlain said she is always amazed at what the students come up with year after year.
“Every marble sorter is different,” she said. “One group used a corkscrew-shaped transporter system.
“It’s neat to see all the different levels of students and what they can accomplish.”
Before starting the project, Chamberlain asked students to fill out a sheet indicating whether they are a manager, problem solver or programmer.
Dana New, a DHS sophomore, was the programmer for her group and can attest to the importance of teamwork in making the project a success.
“The hardest part was coming up with the program to go with what the guys built. They did the mechanicals,” she said, referring to team members Deacon Felix, Hadi Mohammed and Blaine Burgess.
Dana admits the group’s first attempt at building a marble sorter was not successful.
“We had to move the sensor because it was picking up the transporter instead of moving the marbles,” she said. “We moved the sensor to the hopper system where the marbles sit.”
Working on the project also made Dana realize something else.
“You can’t really do things by yourself. It takes a lot of teamwork,” she said.
Dana was one of only three female students in this year’s Principle of Engineering class, but that didn’t seem to bother her.
“It’s my Plan B,” she said of pursuing a career in engineering. “I want to go to school to be a doctor, and if not, I want to be an engineer.”
Jeremiah Cooley, a DHS freshman, described the marble sorter project as “nerve wracking.”
“You couldn’t have an idea that worked the first time,” he said of the experience. “There were lots of arguments and lots of compromise.
“We had to completely destroy our first design, and I didn’t think we were going to have enough time to build another one,” he said.
It all worked out and in the end the completed marble sorter was a source of pride for the students.
“It was like, ‘Hey, I created this,’” Jeremiah said.
He said his favorite part of the project was presenting the marble sorter and explaining how it worked during the open house.
“They were amazed that kids like us could make something like that,” he said.
The winning team members, who are freshman and sophomores, are Arriel Barnes, Blaine Burgess, Jeremiah Cooley, Deacon Felix, Matthew Henry, Joshua King, Max Lappin, Hadi Mohammed, Marcus Moultrie, Dana New, Jabari Osaze, Andrew Sentelle and Crystal Williamson.
The Principles of Engineering class is supported by Vermilion Advantage and is one of the Project Lead the Way classes offered at DHS. Project Lead the Way is a national curriculum to promote engineering in the high schools.