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Abby & Cole: Launch U propels GRCC students to NASA competition

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Left to Right: Abby Tichelaar, Joy Walczak, Kristen Doneth, and Cole Herring
Joy Walczak
Left to Right: Abby Tichelaar, Joy Walczak, Kristen Doneth, and Cole Herring

Before they finish high school, Abby and Cole will complete their Associate Degrees at GRCC and have a top five finish at a NASA competition under their belts. They’re both getting a jump start on their education and careers at no cost by taking part in a program called Launch U.

Joy Walczak from Kent ISD speaks with Kristen Doneth, Kent ISD Launch U Coordinator, and students Abby Tichelaar and Cole Herring, Launch U, GRCC, and Lowell graduates.

Joy Walczak: Welcome to the Your Dream is Our Dream Podcast where we celebrate student success one dream at a time. This program is made possible by Kent ISD in partnership with WGVU. I'm Joy Walczak and I have with me today Abby Tichelaar and Cole Herring, Launch U and GRCC students who recently returned from the HUNCH competition at Nassau, and we have the coordinator of the Launch U program at Kent ISD, Kristen Doneth. Thanks to all of you for joining me today.

All: Thank you.

JW: First of all, Abby and Cole, I want to say congratulations to your top 5 finish at the NASA HUNCH Biomedical project competition this year, an event you prepared for and took part in with Grand Rapids Community College where you're both earning your associate degrees. What an accomplishment! Congratulations again.

Thank you.

JW: The journey really began for both of you back in 10th grade in a program called Launch U and We have Kristen here today. Will you please tell us a little bit about Launch U and how it sets students like Cole and Abby up for success?

Kristen: Yeah. Launch U is a 5 year high school opportunity for students to earn both their high school diploma and an associate degree at the same time with just one extra year of high school. We call it the 13th year. We partner with Grand Rapids Community College and students take a combination of both high school classes and college classes during their time in Launch U. The best part about Launch U is that it's free for students and that means they come out of college with no debt. And after they graduate, they either go right into the workforce or they transfer to a four-year university to earn their bachelor degree.

JW: That's really terrific. And Abby, you are graduating from Rockford High School this year in addition to having already earned your associate degree. Can you tell me about what brought you into this program in the first place and a little bit about your experience?

AT: Yeah, so, my mom actually found an advertisement for the program, I think on Facebook, and she's like, I want you to do this, and I'm like, okay. And so we filled out the application. I got my letters of recommendation. And then after we had applied and I was accepted into the program, there was like a couple weeks, a couple months, where we didn't know if the program was going to happen because there were so few people in the Mechanical Design program. And I am so thankful that we did end up getting to be a part of the program because it has just opened up a world of new opportunities for me and new challenges. And I enjoyed all of the classes that I took so much. And now I'm actually in the workforce and I'm using everything that I've learned throughout the program.

JW: That is terrific that you're able to apply it immediately to a real job. And that's part of what this program set students up for, which is a terrific example of success. Also, not every student has an opportunity to go to the Space Center for a NASA competition. Why don’t you start and tell me a little bit about your part in this, and then I’ll ask Cole about his.

AT: We were actually introduced to the idea of the project, idea of the competition, by one of our professors in one of his classes - a little funny because me and Cole were both re-taking a class in the fall semester. And that's how we heard about the program. And it wasn't really advertised to any other students. So if we wouldn't have been in that situation where we weren't re-taking a class, I don't know if we would have been able to do it. And so we met with Werner Absenger, which is the Sechia Institute of Culinary Education Program Director, and Jennifer Struik, who is an adjunct professor there, and they were our advisors for the whole, like, eight months that we worked on this project. And they’re, like, in the culinary field. So we kind of went in completely blind. They didn't know what we were doing. We didn't know we were doing. And so it was really just a team work experience of me and Cole coming up with an idea and making it into a real thing.

JW: And the idea that you came up with, Cole, why don't you describe for us what that is? And we are here doing a podcast, so I would love for you to tell me about it visually, if you could.

CH: So the best way to describe what we came up with is, think of a box, right? And now give this box thicker walls and on the inside where all the stuff would go, have that wall honeycombed. In the top of the box because it was we made it so thick, we put slots all the way down through the wall so that you can put granola bars all the way in there. The astronauts could just go, I'm hungry. Give me a granola bar. There you go! You know, you got a granola bar. The box comes together, kind of like a 3-D puzzle, you know, it's got a little slots, and the bottoms of the walls and on the base its got slots and you just put it all together like a LEGO. And it just it comes together, comes apart, and it holds up pretty well. And an astronaut looked at and went, I like it. So I think it's great.

JW: It's pretty terrific that you had an opportunity to show this to actual astronauts. And this was part of a competition where you were creating packaging that may go into a space travel situation. So you had a lot of factors to consider when you are putting together this project. How did what you learn in school help you prepare for that project in that endeavor, Cole?

CH: So, I think from the Launch U program, the number one thing that I got out of it that helped me the most was my knowledge of using SOLIDWORKS. And even though a lot of my classes were here’s a piece of paper and make the part, it's like, because I was doing that, I could see the part I was making. And then I could just go, oh, well, here's what I want to make now. Just do that all but without the piece of paper. And so that's one of the biggest things I learned going through the process of all that for NASA - just making the part.

JW: So for our listeners, can you describe the project - not the project - but the program that you used again?

CH: So the program I use is called SOLIDWORKS. And the best way to think about it is, take an object. And now what SOLIDWORKS does is it models that object. So you make the drawings, the dimensions, all of that in SOLIDWORKS and then you have like a little object of that virtually in SOLIDWORKS and the way that we made our box is through 3D printing. And so by exporting that model as an STL, we just printed it out. And now we went from computer screen to physical model.

JW: Now, both of you make this sound really easy. And I know that it's a complicated process, but you were able to do this together. Kristen, why don’t you share with us the aspects of what you're hearing them tell us and how that really is an example of a success story for our Launch U program - and this isn't the only Launch U program. Correct?

KD: Yeah. So really the best part of my job is watching these students achieve their goals, succeed in their classes and graduate with both their high school diploma and an associate degree. So starting from scratch, you know, in 10th grade, they really - it's fun to watch them start there, not be so confident, and then grow in the program, over the next 4 years. Our staff are like cheerleaders, you know, and parents at the same time. So we're watching these kids grow up, basically, and it's just a really cool experience, just watching them achieve their goals and earn their diplomas.

JW: And it's nice to know that this Mechanical Design program has also grown. In fact, Launch U this year has had more graduates than any previous year. We have 44 in all of our programs. Can you describe for us, Kristen, the additional programs that are pathways to associate degrees through Launch U?

KD: Sure! We have 4 programs. One is our General Associate degree program. Those students who are in that program basically start with their Gen Eds (General Education classes) and then they pick electives or program classes that they're interested in. We also have a Culinary Certificate program, which is not actually a degree program, but a certificate program, and those students partner with Kent Career Tech Center, and we have and IT program which we also partner with Kent Career Tech Center and the IT program also earns an associate degree.

JW: Fantastic. So, Abby, I'd love for you to share with me what you have really learned through this experience. What would you share with other students who might be considering being part of something like this?

AT: I would definitely say take the leap. There's absolutely nothing to lose. Personally, for me at first it was it was kind of easy and then COVID happened and then it wasn't so easy, but we got through it. So, yeah, it's just not be afraid of trying something new. I think with the Mechanical Design program specifically, it's a very specialized program, even from the beginning of the first our first-ever semester to the end of it, we had just a completely new skill set of knowledge and all of that just kept transferring into our next classes.

JW: And also transferred into a job for you. Tell us about the career option you have going for you right now.

AT: Yes, so. Right now, right after graduation, I started a job at B&O Saws in Belding where I work as a mechanical designer. And from day one, I've been modeling in SOLIDWORKS, making parts editing assemblies, making drawings - everything that I've been doing for the past four years.

JW: It sounds like you've had a chance to make at least one of your dreams come true.

AT: Yes

JW: Fantastic. And, Cole, tell us about some teachers who may have helped influence you as you've been reaching toward your dreams.

CH: So one of the teachers that is probably influenced me the most is Mr. Ward. I love that guy. I mean, I can't imagine anything I've done in those classes being just like without him. You know, it's like you think of those classes. There's Mr. Ward! So, I really like that. And then I think my the other one is Mr. Stuecken, because he was the first teacher in our die design class and another, the jig and fixture classes, and those were the first classes where it's like, alright, well, here's our idea. You know, here's a die. Go make it. You know, here's what we need to cut out – go make it. And with jigs, it's like here is the part that we want the jig on, go make it. And so, you know, he did a great job of just going, just do it, you know, just make the jig, how it needs to be done. I’ll guide if you need it. But it was introducing me to independence instead of just going, here's a piece of paper. There's that dimension. There's that dimension. There's that dimension, going down the line.

JW: Giving you the opportunity to actually learn and do on your own. Fantastic.

JW: Kristen, what do you think educators can learn from asking students like Abby and Cole and others about their dreams and why is that important?

KD: I think we learn right along with them to be honest. Some students know what they want to be when they grow up and some do not. So we help guide them to where they want to be. So if they have these hopes and dreams of being an engineer or a doctor or whatever, we help them get there, and we do that by doing college and career readiness curriculum with them. And so in 11th grade, they do a project where they take two different careers and they compare them and then we kind of go from there. So I think it's a really great opportunity for the students to do some research to figure out if this is really the pathway they want to go. And then in 12th grade and the 13 year, they also have to do job shadows. So they actually get into the companies to see day-to-day stuff and if that really is what they want to go into. But we're really learning right alongside them and I think it's really important because their dreams - we want to help make come true, right? That's the goal here, we want them to be successful college students, but also successful in the workplace.

JW: I think you have achieved that with the students that we have here with us today with Abby and Cole. And there was one more really cool aspect of your trip to NASA that I'd love for you to tell me about. And then maybe you can share with me something about your signature now going into space.

AT: Yes, so for both of the competition days, for our competition day, and then we also had a culinary team that was working with GRCC as well, we both got to sign a storage locker that actually gets sent up to the ISS (International Space Station) with supplies that they need.

JW: That's really wonderful. Cole, what was is your biggest take away from your time at the Space Center in Houston?

CH: So I think my biggest take away from the things that I saw in Houston was that it's like, you know, you go down there and you see all these cool things, you know, and it's just not every day where you go down there. And then what you've done is one of those cool things that everyone gets to see. It's also another thing where you don't just talk to an astronaut and not know about it until after talking to him, like, oh, I didn't know that was an astronaut. I think that's what I like most about NASA is that it surprised me in ways that I didn't think I would be.

JW: Well, learning is always a surprise so it's good that you have some things to look forward, too. What would you like to do as your next steps towards your dreams?

CH: So first and foremost, probably just working, you know. And then talking to Lynnae Selberg and Mrs. Doneth about taking some classes at GRCC getting the credits that I could get there for cheap and then just transfer to a four-year college.

JW: And you already have some cost savings under your belt because the Launch U program is, of course, free for students. And the way to get connected with the Launch U program is to first talk to your high school counselor about the opportunities that are available to you. And you can also go to our kentisd.org website. That's another opportunity to look forward to. I want to thank all of you for talking with me today and for dreaming big. It's been a real pleasure. Thank you.

KD, CH, AT: Thank you.

JW: And thanks again to everyone who is listening to. If you know a student who dreams big, we'd love to share their story. You can share your ideas and hear more dreams stories at kentisd.org/yourdream. The Your Dream is Our Dream podcast is presented by Kent ISD in partnership with WGVU.

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