By Sarah Kohnle

National award puts Owensville on the map

A project to enhance school safety exploded, but in a good way. A great way. When a team of students at Owensville High School designed a lock to prevent intruders from entering schools, little did they and their teacher realize the ripple effect that will be felt for years.

Not only is their project a practical solution for safety, but the entire process – from conception to realization – is changing mindsets, causing students and educators to stretch.

To prepare students this fall, science teacher Kevin Lay encouraged them to change their traditional way of thinking. He says there is a mental hurdle students have to overcome.

“They come into a classroom and it’s all of a sudden, ‘I need help.’ It’s ‘teacher, teacher.’”

When he introduced the new crop of sophomores to their STEM class, he asked how many had read the operating manual for their smartphones. Not a single hand went into the air, yet as Lay pointed out to them, they knew how to use those devices, discovering through trial-and-error.

“You have way more capability than you’re giving yourself credit for. Take the technology you have and the mindset and bring it into the classroom. Don’t let the obstacles stop you. Go out and do something.

“And when you leave this class, go out and leave a legacy.”

One of his STEM teams did just that last year, inspiring countless people across the nation and infusing the school district with cutting-edge technology. First, they entered their project into the Samsung Solve for Tomorrow Competition through the online application process that asked about the design, implementation, and sustainability of the student’s STEM project, and how it solves a real problem that their community faces. With the entry,  they were selected as one of 250 state finalists, and then one of 50 state winners. After creating a three-minute video to show the design’s use and application, they were selected as one of 10 national finalists, and finally, one of three national grand prize winners. The team traveled to New York City to pitch their project in front of a panel and then on to Washington, D.C., to meet with congress and lawmakers to discuss their solution to the problem of school intruders, ultimately winning a total of $100,000 in technology and classroom supplies prizes.

The team was one of four teams Lay had in his STEM class last year. At the beginning of that school year, the team decided they wanted to pursue a design to prevent intruders from entering a classroom, knowing that someone could easily shoot out a lock on a door. Lay said a few months later, he was forwarded an email about the Samsung competition. He said the competition “promoted students solving real-world problems using STEM solutions and a STEM approach.” The intruder lock device idea seemed like a perfect fit, so the plan was set into motion.

“The entry into the competition really propelled our progress and provided some great goals and a timeline for our team.”

He said the students spent the next few months brainstorming, concept drawing, and discussing the feasibility of their options. Research included meeting with law enforcement experts to study psychological profiles of intruders and exploring options with input from Boeing and aerospace engineers (from LMI Aerospace), as well as members of the school community.

The student team (lead by Paige Tayloe, Trey Fisher and Jonah Hoffman) began to narrow their focus.

“We realized that nothing’s going to be able to stop a school shooter. But if we could make a device that could give people an extra 10 seconds at the most, then we’ve done a really good job,” explained Jonah Hoffman.

During the research and design, they accounted for such things as the human factor in such a trying time, meaning a shaky hand trying to slide the lock into place on the interior of the door. Lay said with that variable in mind, they decided a tight fit wasn’t ideal.

Solving problems by trial-and-error involved a variety of skills, lifelong skills, Lays says.

“We’re empowering these kids not to just being college and career ready, but being entrepreneurs. All the soft skills we thought were so soft, they’re not anymore. There are jobs, businesses, colleges and universities looking for kids who can communicate, who can work as a team, and who can overcome failure.”

His remodeled classroom in Owensville serves as a visual reminder of pushing past obstacles. Gone are the traditional desks and chairs. Instead, thanks to the prize money, students gather in small groups around high-top tables or on couches and view the lesson on a four-sided jumbotron – or in Lay’s parlance: edutron – hanging from the ceiling in the center of the classroom. Every student in the classroom has a small laptop computer. Four touchscreen flip boards, ideal for presentations, are synced with Lay’s watch. The latest in technology was an incredible boost to this rural school in a town of 2,600 off Highway 19 in Missouri.

Another boost was competition itself, putting Owensville on the map in the STEM world. Lay’s team went head-to-head with private schools and larger schools from across the U.S.

One of the three students, Jonah Hoffman, admitted it was intimidating facing those other schools.

“You could just tell these students were crazy smart walking around, and then you’ve got the Owensville kids,” he says with a grin.

Jonah, a junior, says before the entire STEM experience, he didn’t think of school as anything beyond school. Now he sees more possibilities for his future and hopes finances don’t limit him. He works as a server at a local restaurant and doesn’t like the idea of student loan debt.

Jonah and teammate Trey Fisher both said they didn’t care much for public speaking. But now, they are able to convey their thoughts with confidence.

“It’s crazy all the stuff we’ve been able to do,” Trey said. “I’ve learned so much, I would get headaches somedays.” He called the STEM class a boundary pusher – pushing them all a little bit further.

The journey’s not over, as the three-person student team owns the intellectual rights to the device.

For Lay, the change in methodology came when he realized he might be preventing students from thinking broader. He needed to get out of their way, he said.

“These students are allowing me to learn with them. I think that’s what rejuvenates me. As technology changes, it’s hard for people to change. And so, I see a new group of students come in and they’re excited about it and they’re embracing it, and it gives me hope.”

As he enters his 17th year teaching, Lay says he feels that same excitement as in his early years. Except now he steps aside and lets the students fly.