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Students Talk Trash to Learn Engineering

Students Talk Trash to Learn Engineering

Chris Houser reached deep into a trash bag and rummaged around before pulling a completely intact sandwich from the bottom.

Laughing, he waved it at his classmates, most of whom quickly backed away.

Unfazed by their disgust, Houser, 18, played to his audience, gesturing wildly and flapping the food around.

"Who throws something like this away?" he asked. "It's a perfectly good sandwich."

Scenes similar to the one Houser created repeated themselves several times during the two hours Davenport West High School students sorted through trash bags at the Scott County Landfill as part of an engineering course.

Fifteen students tore open trash bags and sorted the waste into several bins before taking a tour of the waste processing facility. The class was part of the national Project Lead The Way program, which forms partnerships between schools and businesses to boost the quality of engineers.

After threatening to eat the sandwich, Houser finally threw it, a piece of pizza and several other bits of food into a bin marked for organic waste.

Houser, an aspiring electrical engineer, was one of only a few of the students who ignored the smell and dove right into the mess, using diapers, food and anything else he could find to poke at the unlucky students standing near him.

Alex Clark, 18, slowly tore open another bag set up on a table inside one of the landfill buildings before throwing an arm over his nose and backing away quickly.

As their teacher, Jason Franzenburg, watched his students gingerly pick through piles of garbage, he said he didn't mind their reluctance.

"The kids are a little bit grossed out right now," Franzenburg said. "It's garbage, and it's waste, and 90 percent of the things you buy are automatically going to go to the landfill. It will sort of shock them a little bit, so they'll understand their impact."

Franzenburg, a Project Lead The Way teacher at Davenport West, has been guiding students through the Project Lead The Way engineering capstone course for three years.

He said the idea of the landfill field trip wasn't to gross out the students. Rather, he wanted them to find a problem product and design a solution.

This is the first year the class has visited the landfill, and Franzenburg said he hoped it will help students connect with the things they learn in the classroom.

"I've been a little unhappy with research, effective research, in the past," Franzenburg said. "So, the effort is to have the students read a real book, have real research, primary and secondary research, and learn how to navigate through credible sources."

The course textbook, "Cradle to Cradle," makes a case for ecologically friendly industrial design that generates less waste.

During the class, students hear from guest speakers who work at engineering firms and local construction companies. They also took apart waste at an electronic demanufacturing facility in Davenport before heading out to the landfill.

"Basically, you start with research and project development in the front end, and the back end is disposal of the product," Franzenburg said. "We're going backwards a step, and we're starting with disposal and where the product ends, and then we start from there and go forward."

After picking through the trash and sorting it into numerous bins at the landfill, the students weighed the bins and added their numbers to the totals of nine other agencies that went through the same waste-sort exercise.

They'll use the data to pick a product and material to research.

"So, what they're going to be doing is an active research project," Franzenburg said. "They're going to become an expert on that product and then, eventually, select a product and write a report to a company to use a different material that is biodegradable."

Franzenburg said he hopes the 13 aspiring engineers in the course will learn to pick better raw materials for any products they may design in the future.

Schaun Juchter, a freshman in community and regional planning at Iowa State University, took the capstone course in 2011. He and two partners designed and built a new watering device for the Davenport West football team to use during practice.

Juchter called the capstone course one of the best he took during his high school career.

"I learned more from that class than I ever did in high school, period," Juchter said. "I actually cared about it, compared to some other classes where you're just kind of there and doing what you're told."

courtesy of the Quad City Times