Middle school students solve real-world problem

Holland-based Thermotron Inc. welcomed a group of middle students this summer through the iChallengeUth program to tackle one of its workspace challenges.

Thermotron, a high-performance environmental test chamber manufacturer, partnered with Ottawa Area Intermediate School District’s futurePREP’d program known as iChallengeUth in August to provide middle school students an opportunity to develop solutions to real-world problems.

It is a week-long educational program offered in the summer for incoming seventh- and eighth-grade students. The middle school students and two teachers work with participating local businesses to develop practical solutions to an identified challenge or problem.

Chelsea Selkirk, a member of the human resources team and a recruiter at Thermotron, said she presented the idea of participating in the 2015 summer session to management based on prior experience working with the program at a previous employer.

“I explained the benefits behind it, and they really jumped on board as far as really getting exposure of the company to the community, as well as giving back to the students and giving them an opportunity to work with a local business,” said Selkirk.

During iChallengeUth’s second session Aug. 10-14, Thermotron welcomed five seventh and eighth grade students and two teachers to address workspace inefficiencies in a section of the manufacturing plant at 836 Brooks Ave. in Holland.

After the students spent a portion of the first day with other students participating in the program, Selkirk said the group came to the Thermotron facility to receive a tour and meet with supervisors and an engineering intern.

“We gave them the history on Thermotron, showed them our products, and then we presented the problem to them,” said Selkirk. “Then they spent the rest of the day brainstorming, researching, and over the next couple of days came up with a solution to the problem.”

Thermotron was founded in 1962 and specializes in manufacturing high-performance environmental test chambers and vibration test systems. As the company has grown over the years, it has diversified its customer base to serve industries ranging from automotive and aerospace to clean energy.

“We manufacture environmental test chambers. They range in size from as small as a microwave to as large as two- or three-stall garages, and they can simulate pretty much any environment you can imagine here on Earth or even in outer space,” said Selkirk.

The students were presented with the workspace layout issue in a sub-assembly department. Due to the number of pieces the department is responsible for, the space had become overcrowded, according to Selkirk.

“They are responsible for making upwards of 200 different pieces of equipment. There are a lot of tools in the area, there are a lot of materials and equipment, and that has created an efficiency problem,” said Selkirk.

“We wanted to see what (the students) could come up with as far as re-arranging the layout. They spent the week doing some research on efficiency in the workplace, talked to some of the employees who work in that area every day and learned what the employees needed.”

After outlining a few parameters, such as maintaining a certain width between aisles for a hi-lo to pass through, Selkirk said the company let the students run with the idea.

“We are going to be implementing those changes in the next few weeks,” said Selkirk. “I think at first a lot of folks were a little nervous about having these students come in and what they would really be able to accomplish in a week. By the end of the week, everybody was amazed.”

Jennifer Baumann, manufacturing supervisor at Thermotron, said the students followed the guidelines of what could and count not be changed and came up with a functional, creative solution to the space issue.

“I think their layout may take a half-day to implement and create happier, more productive employees,” said Baumann.

During the course of the week-long program, students were on-site at their assigned business from 9 a.m.-3:30 p.m., Monday through Friday. The group of students working with Thermotron presented their solution to the supervisor of the particular area on Thursday in a dress rehearsal for the larger presentation on Friday, when students were expected to discuss the problem and resulting solution to a panel of judges comprised of business, civic and education leaders.

“We were all very impressed with the professionalism of the students, how they were eager to work on the problem for us, their creativity and their ability to use different resources,” said Selkirk. “Everybody involved in the program on the company side was very impressed, and they are already asking me if we can do it again next year.”

She said participating in the program had benefits for both sides.

“The students are our next generation, and Thermotron has been in Holland since the ’60s, but we are still not well-known,” said Selkirk. “The students will go home, they will talk about what they did that day, but more importantly they solved a problem we were going to have to have some of our employees work on. It was timesaving for us and resource-saving for us.”

The OAISD futurePREP’d program offers tools and innovative programs to provide students with resources and training needed to be successful in the workplace and in achieving personal goals. For the manufacturing industry, Selkirk said the program also exposes students to possibilities in terms of career path and employment.

“Manufacturing is very important, not only to our community but also our economy. I think a lot of schools are pushing for students to go to college for four-year degrees, two-year degrees, and college isn’t necessarily for everyone,” said Selkirk. “The skilled trades are extremely important. I am a recruiter here at Thermotron and I am constantly looking for good employees with a skilled-trade background. IT really opens the kids up to alternative possibilities.”

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