LCHS Engineering Club helps tap undiscovered potential

From the outside, room 604 looks like any other classroom on the La Cañada High School campus. But inside, the former wood shop room is a bustling workshop filled with wires, gadgets, computers and all the necessary ingredients required to animate a robot.

This is the humble home of the LCHS Engineering Club, which in its seven-year existence, has transformed the lives of students whose interests in building, computers and robotics had previously lain dormant, undiscovered and untapped.

"This town is all about chemistry, biology and physics; that's what they think colleges are looking for," said team adviser and science teacher Steve Zimmerman. "But I've had parents come back and tell me their child wouldn't have made it into Caltech if it weren't for this program."

To honor engineering and those who've dedicated their lives to it, the LCHS Engineering Club has named March 14 "Appreciate an Engineer Day." The La Cañada Flintridge City Council officially declared it a holiday with a proclamation presented to students by Mayor Laura Olhasso.

On Friday club members will pass out buttons with their robotics team mascot "The Blockhead" for supporters to wear and another that reads "I'm an Engineer." The idea, said team member and LCHS senior Ren Koontz, is to partly to let people know the club exists.

"I just kind of hope it gets more people — and honestly, especially girls — into engineering and computer science," the 17-year-old said Tuesday, while making buttons.

In the spirit of sharing their love of engineering with the larger community, team members have participated in student mentoring workshops at Pasadena schools and visited retirement homes with their trademark robot, the Foothill Flyer.

"It's not only about learning engineering," Zimmerman said, "It's about service."

The club annually competes in the FIRST Robotics Challenge (FRC), a nonprofit international engineering competition for high school students. It also established the FIRST LEGO League, which teaches elementary schoolers the basics of robot construction, and the FIRST Tech Challenge for middle schoolers and club rookies.

On April 3, the club is taking the Foothill Flyer to Las Vegas, where 40 teams will compete in FRC at the regional level. Working on the robot earlier this week was a team of die-hard club members.

Junior Philipp Wu, the club's current president, said he was in seventh grade when he first participated in the LEGO League.

"(Before) I never really had any special interests," Wu said. "It was this club that got me interested. I thought, 'I can do things and build things and do things that are helpful to the world.' Basically, this is my life now."

Team members find it surprising that, despite the prominence of big firms that employee engineers in and around the local community — from JPL and Caltech to SpaceX and Northrop Grumman — there aren't any engineering classes at La Cañada High.

"In our community of La Cañada, pretty much JPL is the big company everyone knows about," said Wu, whose father works there. "But when we're at school, we don't really focus on what engineers do. We just do the math and science."

That's something club member Jake Johnsen, 15, hopes will change.

"There's still that constant nerd stigma around stuff like this," Johnsen said, waving his arm over the robot and around the workshop. "But once you stop in, you realize there's so much more."


Follow Sara Cardine on Twitter: @SaraCardine.


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