KC Engineering Zone opens doors for students and stirs hope for the industry

KC Engineering Zone opens doors for students and stirs hope for the industry

EngineerZone al 012015 0202fDevin Edwards is sold on the strategy.

Happy to play his part.

So we need more scientists and engineers? More homegrown talent? More students of color? Boys and girls alike? Right here in the heart of the city?

The 17-year-old Paseo Academy junior totally embraces the Pied Piper role as one of those model students set loose in a new engineering workspace that’s being dedicated this week.

Just look where it’s landed him.

This KC Engineering Zone on the University of Missouri-Kansas City campus at 4825 Troost Ave. has 4,200 square feet.

It has two Bridgeport milling machines, a computer numerically controlled mill, a metal lathe and shear, a band saw, two arbor presses, a jet grinder and sander, a chop saw, a portable welder, drill presses, compressed air…

And rows of computers.

And people — the professional engineer mentors, the UMKC students — mingling with him and his high school peers.

And the availability of the space on Saturdays, school holidays and for a full four hours after school.

“This is four hours of love for me,” Edwards said.

Right now in its prototype phase, the engineering zone — or KC EZ — is giving robotics teams from Paseo and Lincoln College Preparatory Academy a new space to collaborate and build.

But the KC STEM Alliance and its partners have grand plans.

“This will be a resource center for STEM for the region,” said the alliance’s director, Laura Loyacono.

STEM fields — science, technology, engineering and math — “are so desperate for engineers,” she said. “They can absorb as many as we can create. And we want these students to have that chance.”

Edwards is well on his way. He wants to be an astrophysicist, he says, and he’s mulling several college options.

But not only do he and his STEM-minded schoolmates have a mentor-filled environment in which to flourish, but so do other students who might not otherwise imagine this world as potentially theirs.

The alliance and the industry and higher education partners want the site to be a magnet.

They figure on opening the space to more schools’ robotics teams and other engineering contest projects. It will be a new home for STEM summer camps.

By opening KC EZ on a college campus, they are creating opportunities to mix high school students with college students and set up high school programs that bring students early college credits.

Most of all, the zone means to draw more students into programs like the FIRST Robotics competition, free from any negative peer pressure, “in an environment where science and technology is celebrated,” said Tim Moormeier, president of U.S. Engineering Co. in Kansas City.

Moormeier, the project manager of KC EZ, was hooked on the robotics competition when he watched close-hand as his son competed on the successful Olathe Northwest High School team.

He saw how teams had to work like a business, creating and collaborating, beating “real-world deadlines” and building “real-world leadership,” Moormeier said.

“Every high school,” he said, should have “a FIRST Robotics team like every high school has a football team.”

The new space, decked in bright green and orange that the Kansas City students helped paint, should help stoke the STEM fire, Paseo students agreed.

A year ago, the Paseo team constantly needed more space than their classroom allowed, said 18-year-old senior Maria Ponce.

“We had to use the hallway,” she said. “We know the struggle.”

There also were more limits on when the school would be open after hours, said senior Trey Bradley, 18. The competition allows teams a tight window of six weeks to build their robots. They were finishing theirs right up to the last moment.

“We had such little time, we had no time to practice with it,” Bradley said. “This year? I’m ecstatic about the whole situation.”

The original plan for the engineering zone was to build it inside the Free Enterprise Center that UMKC is planning at Volker and Brookside boulevards, but that project is hung up while waiting for state matching funds.

The university was eager to get the engineering zone open for the city high schools, said Kevin Truman, the dean of UMKC’s School of Computing and Engineering.

The partners were ready to go, too, and the National Nuclear Security Administration and Honeywell had an opportunity to donate some $300,000 worth of machine shop equipment. So space was renovated in the UMKC building on Troost.

“We didn’t want to wait,” Truman said.

The Paseo and Lincoln teams are in feverish work mode now, as two of the 52 teams from the Midwest preparing for the Kansas City regional robotics tournament March 12-14 at Metropolitan Community College-Business and Technology Campus.

The engineering zone is swarmed with students after school. Some, like Edwards and Ponce and Bradley, are all in. Some are thinking about it — watching classmates and their mentors work.

But everyone’s cool here. And very busy.

Story by Joe Robertson, KC Star; Photo by Allison Long, KC Star