- Associated Press - Saturday, May 6, 2017

SEDRO-WOOLLEY, Wash. (AP) - Lautenbach Industries in Mount Vernon has a problem: What to do with the nonrecyclable plastic that covers some of the wood waste their customers send them to recycle.

“Wood is a valuable commodity for us,” said sales manager Paula Birchler. “We love to take in the wood from our customers, but in order to take in the wood sometimes you have to take things in that are less desirable.”

To solve the problem, Lautenbach Industries last week turned to a previously untapped source of innovation - Sedro-Woolley High School students.

“There’s nothing like new eyes on an old problem,” Birchler said.

While 10 students searched for a solution for Lautenbach, 10 others tackled a problem familiar to many in manufacturing fields: What to do with byproducts, especially when dealing with composites.

In partnership with the NW Innovation Resource Center in Bellingham, the high school last week hosted its third Design Thinking Workshop, where students tackled real-world problems such as those faced by local businesses.

“Our mission is to help entrepreneurs and inventors, but we thought it was important to set an example for young people,” said Diane Kamionka, interim executive director of the resource center. “Hopefully some of this will end up creating entrepreneurial opportunities.”

During the three-hour workshop, students talked with industry experts about the problems they were presented with before setting out to design and construct solutions using household items such as pipe cleaners, paper cups and zip ties.

“You don’t have to have (a) 3-D printer,” Sedro-Woolley School District Assistant Superintendent Mike Olson said. “You can use everyday products to solve everyday problems.”

As part of its STEM Network initiative, the district has been looking for ways to increase students’ learning, especially learning with real-world, hands-on applications, Olson said.

The workshop is a different type of learning than students experience in their everyday classes. It’s not about books and homework - it’s about practicality.

“It’s not about ‘Will this be on the test?’ It’s about ‘How will I use this in real life?’” Olson said. “The right answer is the one they come up with that works. It’s what spurs innovation.”

Students also gain interpersonal skills and critical thinking skills, said Wesley Allen, assistant principal and career and technical education director.

“This is not (just) math, it’s not (just) science, it’s everything,” he said.

The workshops help students find not only their places in industry, but in the community, said sophomore Jarid Schmidt.

“It proves what school’s been trying to tell us,” Schmidt said. “It’s a really fun experience to collaborate with other engineers because we’re not all in the same class. It relates all back to how it affects the community.”

For junior Ramilio Uzunov, who found out the night before the workshop that he had been awarded a coveted summer internship at Microsoft, the workshop had many of the things he wants from school wrapped into one package.

“That’s something I want to do is work with people and innovation,” Uzunov said.

For Lautenbach Industries, the students came up with ideas on how to use the excess plastic, including weaving it into rope, or using it as filler for camping mats.

“It’s so cool to see our youth engaged,” Birchler said. “That’s really why we’re recycling - they’re the ones that get the results of whatever we do, or don’t do.”

Sometimes students’ solutions work, teacher Dave Young said, allowing industry representatives to take the ideas back to their companies. Other times the ideas don’t work.

But that’s not what’s important.

“Sometimes conversation is even more important than action,” Birchler said. “You have to pie in the sky it before you can ever get to the action.”

Teachers from middle and elementary schools observed the workshop, Olson said. The hope is as the district expands its STEM Initiative, teachers will find things they can to take back to their classrooms.

“We’re doing it because it’s good for kids,” Olson said. “We’re doing it because it’s good for teachers. I’d like to see this happen in all of our Skagit County schools.”


Information from: Skagit Valley Herald, https://www.skagitvalleyherald.com

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