CEDAR FALLS — The Cedar Falls High School students had worked for weeks to redesign a metal step stool.
Junior Graham Carter and senior Kabeer Bhatia estimated they were about a third of the way through the project, which they had done using a computer-assisted design program. They had two weeks left before the deadline.
“We’re going in the right direction, there’s just some things we need to fix,” said Bhatia.
It was more than a grade in an engineering class that was at stake, though. They were completing the project for Kryton Engineered Metals, a business in the Cedar Falls Industrial Park.
The students are enrolled in the Center for Advanced Professional Studies, a career program launched by the school in January. They are among 13 students who attend CAPS at Viking Pump’s downtown headquarters during a three-period afternoon block.
The concurrent course earns three high school credits and five Hawkeye Community College credits. The credits will transfer to the state universities as electives.
Cedar Falls is part of a nine-state network of about two dozen CAPS programs, a concept created in 2008 by the Blue Valley School District of Overland Park, Kan. Curriculum for the Cedar Falls program was developed in collaboration with Hawkeye and participating business. A total of 13 businesses are involved this year.
The business partners provided a variety of projects for the students to work on. Staff from some companies came and spoke to students or served as mentors on their projects. Kryton engineer Brett Clikeman mentored Bhatia and Carter.
“We had a project that was on our actual job list that I thought might be suitable,” he said, of the step stool redesign.
“They wanted us to make it cheaper. They were losing money on it,” said Carter. The company also wanted the stool to be more “aesthetically pleasing,” he added.
“There were a lot of welds on it,” said Bhatia. The stool, designed to be attached to an industrial machine, also needed to support more weight.
More than two months later, their design work was finished and a prototype had been built by the company.
“They are go-getters,” Clikeman said of the pair. “They actually went through all the steps that I would go through in a project. I let them fail at certain things that I knew they would fail at just so they get to know the process.”
On Tuesday, the students presented that final product to a Kryton customer.
“The results were good enough that we are having them present it to a customer from the East Coast,” Clikeman said prior to the meeting. “I have fairly high hopes that it will be a green light.”
Engineering was the only CAPS strand in Cedar Falls Community Schools’ inaugural year of the program.
“We have a heavy slant toward engineering and the computer science end of things,” said teacher Ethan Wiechmann. Still, he added, “the big piece about this is the soft skills” — like problem solving and team work. Those are “needed in any profession.”
Two students worked on a computerized job applicant tracking system for Omega Cabinets in Waterloo.
“They took ownership of the project and really were able to wrap their heads around what I needed,” said Kyle Roed, a human resources manager with the company. The students “helped me understand some capabilities of technology to streamline that process.”
Senior Bailey Butz, one of the students who worked on the Omega project, appreciates CAPS for the change it provides from the regular class schedule.
“I like the fact that we meet outside of school in a professional setting,” she said. “It’s more freedom, it’s more relaxed.”
Butz also liked that they traded in their school-issued Chromebook computers for HP laptops, which provided more software capabilities for the students’ projects. “We barely had any technology before, and now we have Photoshop,” she said.
Grant funds through the Community Foundation of Northeast Iowa allowed for the computer purchases. The funds also help pay for a business liaison who makes connections to partner companies.
Prior to the Omega project, Butz and another student worked on photographing each class member for LinkedIn social media profiles.
Junior Griffin Unruh, one of three students building and programming a three-dimensional printer for Viking, said the experience of working on a project and facing a deadline was valuable for him. Help with creating that LinkedIn profile and a resume was another important aspect, along with the connections he’s making to people in the business world.
“I want to go somewhere into the business side of things,” Unruh said, like sales or business administration. He’s also considering information technology as a possible career field. Unruh wanted to get involved in CAPS because “anything with a professional background” will be helpful when it comes to being accepted by a college, “that’s how I look at it.”
Josh Schmidt, human resources director at Viking, predicted programs like CAPS will be important to cultivating the work force they and other local companies need. Along with hosting the program and providing projects, about a dozen employees have been involved with mentoring and speaking to the students.
“I would say in retrospect it’s gone better than we expected,” Schmidt said of the company’s involvement. “It has enhanced our culture here.”
The students “bring a fresh energy to our building every day,” Schmidt added. “It’s provided opportunities for our employees to have an impact beyond their normal day-to-day” duties.
For next year, 66 Cedar Falls students and nine Waterloo Community Schools students have enrolled in what will be three program strands with the addition of communication design and teacher education. Engineering will enroll 25, communication design, 26, and teacher education, 24. The district is working with Hawkeye on curriculum for both of the new programs as well as the University of Northern Iowa on teacher education.
Wiechmann said three more instructors have been hired for the program, which will now include a mix of morning and afternoon sessions. The Mill Race co-working space downtown will host the communication design strand and UNI’s Schindler Education Center will host the teacher education strand.
Dan Conrad, the district’s director of secondary education, expects the engineering course to be more focused on that subject next year while the communication design course could encompass computer science and information technology.
“We won’t really know until we get some projects on the books with our local businesses,” he said. “We’re still working out the details with Hawkeye Community College in regards to college credit for the communication design and teacher education programs.”
Clikeman said Kryton is planning to continue participating in the program.
“I think it provides value to the community and it provides value to the company,” he said, “so who loses?”
Meanwhile, Bhatia and Carter gained practical experience in design and engineering.
“I’m pretty proud of the work that they did,” said Clikeman. “They did a great job.”
Weeks earlier, the students acknowledged they would feel some pride, too, if the customer does buy the redesigned step stool.
“A lot of juniors and seniors in our school, they wouldn’t get a chance to do this,” said Bhatia. “It’s pretty unique.”
Editor's note: A correction was made to this story May 31, 2017.