It’s Full S.T.E.A.M. Ahead for Saint Thomas Aquinas Senior, Grace O’Keefe.

Saint Thomas Aquinas senior, Grace O'Keefe designed a “tensegrity” table and built it at home. As a student in the Principles of Applied Engineering course she was assigned a project to construct a tensegrity structure. Tensegrity is a structural principle in which the components of the structure are designed utilizing methods of continuous tension and compression. The idea to build an actual table was all Grace’s. “I made an initial prototype in class using popsicle sticks and string. I then scaled the model up to my desired size.” The table called for precision, as just one-half inch off could be the difference between a “standing table and a pile of chain, wood and pipe”. Grace was able to gather all the materials for the table from a local hardware store and built it in a weekend. “Building the table was challenging, but it provided me a valuable learning experience and insight into the field of engineering.”
Grace enrolled in the Principles of Applied Engineering course, last Spring after wavering between it and the local Blue Valley CAPS program. “When COVID-19 struck, the choice was made for me - and I’m glad it was. I’ve always been interested in math and science, so this class felt like the perfect fit to help me decide what path to take next year in college.”
First offered in 2017, Principles of Applied Engineering can be taken as a Fine Art credit or as an elective and is available to students in grades 10-12 who have successfully completed Algebra I. The class is held in the Innovation Lab which is fully equipped with the latest technology. Student enrollment in the course continues to grow and currently there are two sections with an average of 15 students in each section. While the ratio leans heavily toward boys, according to the teacher, Rick Hetzel, “The girls that do take the course are normally outstanding students like Grace. She really went above and beyond with this assignment. She made a basic prototype and could have made a slight upscale but she decided to really push herself”.
When asked what her favorite aspect of the course was, Grace shared, “It is the whole engineering process we use for each assignment. I’ve developed a great appreciation for the process of watching something go from an idea, to a sketch, to a model and finally to the end product”. The course curriculum follows the Engineer Your World program developed by the University of Texas in Austin, on which Mr. Hetzel was trained. An essential component is teaching students the Five-step Engineering Process:
  1. Identify the need or problem.
  2. Describe the need by characterizing and analyzing the system.
  3. Generate concepts and select a concept to solve the need.
  4. Embody the concept by testing and evaluating then refining the concept.
  5. Finalize the concept to share the design.
An additional requirement for students taking Principles of Applied Engineering is to compete in an Engineering competition one of which is the KU Design Challenge. This year two different Aquinas student groups finished first in their respective fields of Biomedical and Civil Engineering. Grace was on the team that won the Biomedical competition, “My group followed the five-step process when building our DIY ventilator. The initial feeling when the Can Opener-operated ventilator completed its first compression was irreplicable. It’s something I’ll cherish forever and that I’ll look to find in my future profession.“
Next year Grace will be attending Missouri State University on a soccer scholarship. She plans to major in Mechanical Engineering Technology and minor in business, “I would love to work in the engineering field if at all possible! I’ve always had a passion for math and science and would love to use it to solve issues and improve lives”.
On an endnote, if you are wondering whether the table is for sale, it is already spoken for, “My mom has claimed it for our living room”! We will be keeping an eye out for more future designs from Grace - in both home furnishings and life-saving equipment. This is one Saint who is on her way to making the world a better place.