Engaging Students with Hands-On Learning

Rich Buhnerkemper, CNC instructor at Gateway Technical College

About five years ago, I noticed it was getting more and more difficult for my students to retain the information presented in my CNC Machining Program. You see, at that time, I was making widgets in class that demonstrated the basic processes performed on CNC machines. These widgets, though, had no meaning to my students because they weren’t part of anything real or usable.

The result? Students were disinterested.
One day, while shopping for a remote control (RC) car, it occurred to me these cars are like an actual vehicle, with four-wheel, independent suspension and transmissions with front and rear differentials. As a CNC manufacturing engineer, before I entered teaching, I machined driveline components for agricultural and military applications. So, as a teacher, I knew the driveline components on the remote-controlled cars were machined and closely represented a real-life driveline. A closer examination of the RC car revealed to me I could use the resources in my CNC lab to design, re-engineer, set up, program and run almost the entire RC car as a class project.
I bought an RC car and brought it into the CNC Introductory class. Immediately I noticed that something was different. During the class break, we went outside, and I let the students drive the car. Unfortunately, one of the students drove it into a curb and a steering arm broke. Students rushed to the incapacitated car to examine the mechanical components to determine what went wrong. My students were more interested in the engineering/manufacturing part of it than actually driving it. They retrieved the car and brought it into the lab where we took it apart like a NASCAR pit crew. The entire four-wheel drive front-end was disassembled in 15 minutes. Within the hour, the A-arm was examined by all students and blueprints for a new, more robust A-arm were developed by the students by the end of class.
The result? Extremely interested and engaged students.
By the spring of 2014, I had embraced project-based learning and adopted the mindset of “learning by doing.” If you think about it, when you want to learn something at home or in the garage, the only way to truly learn it is to do it. Now I needed projects for my students. They really bought into the little RC car that I had. They liked it because of all of the moving suspension and drivetrain parts. They were interested in the way the suspension worked and the way that everything assembled and worked together. A vehicle is an engineering masterpiece, and the students were more engaged than ever.
As liaison between SME and Gateway Technical College, I introduced the RC car project to the Racine, WI, SME Chapter 2 board members. Board members were immediately supportive of the project-based learning experience. I was invited to join this chapter, and soon after, Gateway established a student chapter. One of the most enjoyable projects supported by SME and Gateway Technical College is our GTC/SME 6′ (1.8-m) long RC boats. Given the college’s location on the shore of Lake Michigan, the boats are a great learning opportunity for students and local manufacturers.
Gateway Technical College Foundation collaborated in this project, too, providing funding for the boat under its Inspiration Grants program. The program provides funding for initiatives at the college which inspire new or innovative ways to educate students or enhance their experience at the college.
We currently have two boats. One of our boats is a research and development boat that gets put through the wringer every semester. It boasts a Zenoah 33-cc two-stroke race motor with Futaba race servos. We make almost all of the hardware for the boat, and we are engineering and improving our design every year. The other RC boat is of show quality and was originally built by Bonzi Boats. This boat also has a Zenoah race motor. We are currently designing a double rudder system built like the one equipped on the Bonzi boat. These boats have been a project two years in the making with hundreds of hours of blood, sweat and tears put into the initial design, engineering drawings, fixtures, CNC tooling, CNC programming, CNC processing and production runs. Our latest engineering masterpiece was a stinger mount that started out with eight different processes.
Through efficient processing and hours of fixture and workholding design, we were able to run it in four operations complete with one single CNC program. Every time you hit start, you get a finished stinger off the machine. We made two of the radii bigger for strength and made the clearance hole longer so we could get more angle out of the prop for a 20′ (6.1-m) rooster tail—the jet of water that goes up in the air behind the boat.
The result? Students fully engaged in learning while doing, building their confidence and looking toward a future CNC career.
I am working on my bachelor’s degree in Career and Technical Education at the University of Wisconsin–Stout. My professors always remind me to engage and empower my students. The days of the traditional lecture with bookwork just do not cut it in today’s day and age. Students have to be involved in their classes and they have to be in control of what they are doing. This also builds enormous amounts of self-esteem. If you could see the amount of self-esteem and confidence that is produced when a student finishes an engineering/manufacturing/setup/programming task on a CNC machine, you would be amazed.
Now we had a full functioning SME student chapter. We were going on tours every month and the students absolutely loved it. There was so much excitement after visiting these local companies that the students started to buy into SME and manufacturing as a whole. They were also interested in joining SME. Throughout this collaboration between SME and Gateway, we have done several outstanding things like the monthly tours with local industry. I just lean back and grin when the students are all excited and fired up during these tours.
This is crucial to the process of removing the incorrect negative stigma about the dark, dirty, dungeon, sweatshop image of our CNC labs. The connection is amazing when a student walks up to a machine on a tour and sees a CNC program they could write on a CNC machine and they could set up, or especially when they walk up to people on the shop floor and ask them how much they make an hour. The local SME Chapter 2 has a fund-raiser golf outing every year to raise scholarship money for our future engineers of America. I am amazed at how they do this every year and I am even more amazed at the scholarships that my students have received. Some of my students volunteer at this golf outing and that is another way that students are introduced to our industry leaders.
I believe the future of SME is to support a long-needed triad of schools/SME/manufacturing. We need to show students the power of finishing tasks and the self-esteem and confidence that is realized from learning by doing. We need to embrace project-based learning and help other schools implement these techniques because they work. The greatest testimonial to the project-based approach for CNC machining is that everyone—no matter their age, gender, or background—who sees the RC cars and boats re-engineered in my CNC lab wants to become a machinist.
Rich Buhnerkemper is a CNC instructor at Gateway Technical College, located in Southeastern Wisconsin and serving the counties of Kenosha, Walworth and Racine. He has been a Gateway instructor for nearly a decade.
This article was first published in the October 2016 edition of Manufacturing Engineering magazine. Read “Engaging Students with Hands-On Learning” as a PDF.
Gateway CNC instructor Rich Buhnerkemper shows students how a part works on a remote-controlled boat built as part of the coursework in his class on the Racine Campus of Gateway Technical College. Rich believes in the power of project-based learning and put that theory to use when he asked students to collaborate and use their CNC skills to design and build a remote-controlled boat. Students were energized by the project. The effort provided students with the real-world skills they can use once they enter the workforce.
Hands-On Learning