Too Clever by Math

The Rev. Paula Timm stands in a small pantry in the basement of Harbor Beach United Methodist Church, looking over the stock of canned fruit, boxed cereals and oatmeal. This is the "breakfast" section of the room. Further along the shelves come "lunch" and "dinner."

Every Tuesday and Saturday, volunteers package these foods for free distribution to area families. It's no surprise that business is up, Timm says, given the state of the Michigan economy.

Giving food to the needy is one of the oldest of church ministries, but with the help of students from nearby Harbor Beach High School, this particular food pantry is going digital.

Students in the calculus and trigonometry classes at the school have designed a Web site for the pantry as well as a computerized record-keeping system that will allow volunteers to maintain basic information about recipients, number of visits and the type and amount of food distributed to each.

That will make it easier for Timm to turn in activity reports that the state requires for grant funding, and also will improve accountability by tracking the history of each recipient.

"They're awesome," Timm said of students like Jessica Roggenbuck, a Harbor Beach senior who helped develop the system. The students used Intuit QuickBooks as a base program, modifying it to fit the pantry's needs and adding a password-protect system to limit access, Roggenbuck said.

The students also taught Timm how to use the program and will do the same for volunteers in other pantries throughout the region.

Compared to doing the same project as a classroom exercise, Roggenbuck said, "This is much more hands-on. We're teaching others, so it's really engraved in our brains."

"I'm a social person," added classmate Ethan Booms. "If it was a make-believe pantry, I wouldn't get into it so much."

This combination of academics and community service is exactly the goal of the "Engineering Projects in Community Service-Learning" program. Headquartered at Purdue University in Indiana, EPICS High challenges students to use engineering, technology and computer science skills to solve real-world problems in their home communities.

In Harbor Beach, that problem was food pantry record-keeping. In Caseville and Bad Axe public schools, one problem was how to water athletic fields efficiently. Owendale-Gagetown Area Schools wanted to reduce energy costs. In all, seven school districts in Michigan's Thumb area are now working on multi-year EPICS High projects.

Teenagers want to make a difference in the world, said William Oakes, EPICS High director, but many of them don't think of engineering, computer science or math as a way to do it.

"In science and math, kids struggle to see, 'Where would I use this on something that matters?'" said Oakes, a Harbor Beach native. "They care, but we in the field aren't saying, 'Here's how you can make an impact.'"

The point of EPICS is to bridge that gap by linking student teams with not-for-profit organizations or schools that have a particular technical need but don't necessarily have the time, budget or staff to design and implement a solution, Oakes said.

In Caseville Public Schools, one of the first EPICS High projects was to design a way to use "backwash" from the water treatment plant next door to irrigate the community and school athletic fields.

Backwash is water washed backward through the plant's filters to clean them, explained Dave Quinn, Caseville Department of Public Works supervisor.

The backwash normally is piped outside to a settling pond and eventually returned to Saginaw Bay, Quinn said. Now, some of it is being pumped from the pond a short distance to the Caseville baseball diamonds and soccer field for irrigation.

In coming years, the EPICS team at the school plans to draw enough additional water to fill a schoolyard pond where students can study plants and fish, junior Jessica Strozeski said.

"It's more than just doing a paper," Strozeski said. "You realize this can have an impact on the community."

Similarly, the EPICS team at Bad Axe High School knew that hauling out a large hose and sprinkler wasn't the best way to irrigate the soccer field, freshman Scott Hunsanger said.

It was fun for the sweaty players to run through the spray, Hunsanger and freshman Colburn Hanson said during a presentation about their work, but "pretty much most of it evaporated."

Working with a local company, the EPICS team designed an underground irrigation system that will use less water but have more effect, Hunsanger said. Later this spring, the team plans to build an outdoor classroom for school and community programs.

The EPICS High program (there is a separate collegiate EPICS program) is funded by a variety of grants and sponsorships from the federal government, corporations and Purdue itself. Participating school districts are required to have a community partner, which in Huron County is the Square One Education Network.

Formerly called the Convergence Education Foundation, Square One is based in southeast Michigan but is active in school-based engineering and technology projects across the state. Those include hybrid-electric and battery-powered vehicle design projects in Ferndale to a remote-operated underwater vehicle program in Traverse City that may be on track to becoming a larger water-quality assessment program.

Square One provided a local matching grant to bring EPICS High to Huron County because it believes in project-based learning, executive Karl Klimek told MichiganScience. He measures success in terms of "a-ha" experiences that students have as they solve problems, often followed by a growing interest in learning more.

"We aren't trying to make everybody a scientist or engineer," he said, though boosting interest in science and math is one of the EPICS goals.

No matter which career field they choose, students who participate in EPICS High will know more about using science and technology to solve problems in the real world, Klimek pointed out, and will have the soft skills that employers say they want today: teamwork, leadership, project management, communication across disciplines and the ability to present ideas well.

Those skills are evident at the Harbor Beach community food pantry, Timm said, where many of the students who designed the computer system have become pantry volunteers. It's a side benefit that pleases Timm as much as her new digital capabilities.

"Our project is really hitting the community service angle," she said. "It's a melding together of gifts and graces."