Seven months ago, Onyx Leah Bartlett and Stephanie Castaneda had never written computer code and didn’t know what a high tunnel was. Today, they have designed an award-winning miniature prototype that enables one person to move the heavy-hooped tunnels used to extend a farmer’s growing season.
The two Brixner Junior High School eighth-graders took first place last month in the Oregon MESA junior high engineering and design competition, beating teams from Portland-area schools. They are representing the state of Oregon at MESA’s National Engineering and Design Competition in late June. MESA stands for Mathematics Engineering Science Achievement.
Onyx and Stephanie will spend the next few weeks fine-tuning their project and writing the reports required for the national contest. They will present their design and conduct interviews virtually.
“There’s still a lot to do,” Stephanie said. “It has to be fully functional, and we want it to work all the time.”
All Oregon teams, including teams from Mazama High, Brixner, and Chiloquin Junior/Senior High, competed under the theme From Harvest to Table. They were tasked with interviewing a client within the food industry and developing an innovation to empower their client using the principles of human centered design and invention education. The project had to use microbits (which need to be coded to perform tasks) that solve a real-life problem. A Mazama High School team placed third overall in the high school category.
Brixner had seven MESA teams that partnered with Katie Swanson of Sweet Union Farm to work on a way to modify high tunnels so they can be moved from place to place by one person. High tunnels are temporary structures that extend the growing season by protecting plants from weather.
Stephanie and Onyx’s design includes a wheeled modification that can move the tunnels using a remote device.
“Most high tunnels are very heavy so for one person, it wouldn’t be possible to move,” Onyx said. “This will allow a person who is alone or disabled to use them.”
The most challenging part was learning to code and getting the microbits (the computer-coded parts) to work. “Sometimes they just decide not to connect and just do their own thing,” Stephanie said. “This project made me think about engineering as a career path, but I don’t really know what I want to do.”
Swanson was impressed with all the projects presented by the Brixner MESA teams. “They had so many great ideas that could really help out small-scale farmers who are growing food for their community,” she said.
“Onyx and Stephanie’s project includes automation that could make natural temperature control much easier. I especially like how their presentation focused on making farming more accessible to people with different abilities,” Swanson added. “This type of technology is not readily available for small-scale farmers, so their hard work and creativity gave me so much hope.”
This is the first year MESA, an after-school science, technology, engineering and mathematics program, was available to students in eastern and southern Oregon. The Klamath County School District, through a partnership with Oregon Tech, started MESA at Brixner, Mazama, and Chiloquin this fall. All three programs competed virtually at the state level in May.
“I’m super proud of all the groups,” said Kara Contreras, Brixner science teacher and MESA advisor. At Brixner, 19 seventh- and eighth-graders participated in MESA, meeting for an hour a week after school.
Teams from Mazama and Chiloquin traveled to Portland State University May 20 to participate in MESA Day, the culminating event for the Oregon chapter of MESA. The Brixner teams traveled to Oregon Tech for IdeaFest, where they also met with Swanson to present their prototypes. At both events students were able to compete in mini-engineering challenges and tour the colleges. At Oregon Tech, Brixner students were able to see senior capstone projects and control an underwater robot.
Onyx and Stephanie (team name Chico and Co.) also won first place for design brief and second place for product pitch. In addition to third overall, Mazama teams placed second in product pitch and third for design brief. Two Chiloquin junior high teams placed second and third in the catapult throw challenges at the MESA Day event.