‘Rising to the occasion,’ Camas students tackle real-world problems

Local teens solve pandemic-related issues at Discovery High fabrication lab

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category icon Camas, COVID-19 coverage, Latest News, News, Schools
Educators lead an online presentation about student-created stanchions at Discovery High School in Camas on Oct. 22, 2020. The stanchions, which will be connected by chains or ribbons, can help local school leaders set up physically distanced areas during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Contributed photos courtesy of Aaron Smith, Discovery High School)

If there’s one thing Camas students have learned this year, it’s that things don’t always go according to plan.

“You get pandemics. Things fail,” Bruce Whitefield, a Discovery High School engineering teacher and lead instructor of the Camas-area robotics team, said recently. “It’s how you respond that matters. Are you going to put together solutions or just stand back and let someone else fix it?”

For Discovery High students, who work toward being what their principal, Aaron Smith, likes to call “EPIC” (entrepreneurs, producers, innovators and contributors), the answer to that question is an easy one.

“Our kids are really rising to the occasion,” Smith said. “They’re developing real-world skills and making a difference.”

When the pandemic shook the community in March, shutting down schools throughout Washington, a group of Discovery High engineering students and members of the Camas-based robotics team sprung into action, working remotely on projects that utilized the school’s fabrication lab to create more than 14,000 eye shields and 8,500 face shields to protect health care workers.

Later, Camas students would create 800 plastic desk shields to help Camas School District staff better protect against COVID-19 transmission.

Most recently, in October, the students designed stanchions — posts that hold ribbon-like material or chains to help guide people through lines — they hope the school district will use to help ensure physical distancing in the hallways and open areas when students return for in-person classes.

Smith says the high school’s project-based learning approach, in which students learn by engaging in real-world projects, was well-suited to handle many of the unique and difficult situations educators and students have faced during the pandemic and its demand for remote-learning.

“The tagline for Discovery is that we learn for life,” Smith says. “Hopefully, this is a once-in-a-lifetime experience … but I’m just enormously proud of our staff and kids for what they’ve been able to do (during the pandemic).”

The high school’s fabrication lab has its own outside entrance, which meant Whitefield and Brian Cavill, the lead mentor of the Camas-based robotics team, were able to run the students’ designs through the on-site laser cutter at Discover to create the eye and face shields Camas students delivered to nearly 100 health facilities during the height of the personal protective equipment (PPE) shortage in the spring.

“There was a three-month period when the hospitals couldn’t get anything,” Whitefield recalled. “There was no stock at all. We filled that gap with our production of the face and eye shields. People were coming from out of town — driving in from Yakima — to get some.”

When the hospitals began to get more PPE, the Camas students and their teachers and advisors refocused.

“When the demand started dropping, dentist offices were starting to reopen, so we started making supplies for dentists offices and (local clinics),” Whitefield said.

The group had a hard time finding lens-making material after a few months, but Whitefield said demand for the eye shields had also dropped by that point.

“We can reinstate the project if we need to,” he said in October. “But it was getting harder and harder to get the materials.”

Discovery, Camas’ newest high school, was a piece of the $119 million construction bond voters passed in 2016. The project-based learning high school opened in the fall of 2018 on the former Sharp Labs property, next to Odyssey Middle School — the district’s other project-based learning school.

The school started with capacity for 150 freshman and 75 sophomores during the 2018-19 school year and has been growing its student body since then. Eventually, the school will be able to accommodate 600 students in grades 9-12. The school, which focuses on STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics) classes, is currently able to serve 250 students in grades 9-11, and still has openings for the 2020-21 school year.

“Project-based learning is pretty well suited for this situation,” Smith said of the district’s remote-learning environment. “With real-world problems, engagement goes up whether you’re in person or working remotely.”

Students who recently worked on the school’s stanchion project discovered that they could plan and design the equipment without needing to actually be on site.

“The stanchion project was a really interesting design task,” said Cole Herber, 16, a junior at Discovery High. “It was a group effort. We decided on materials as a group and found many different ways to solve the same problem.”

Herber wanted to create an auto-rewind ribbon stanchion that would make disassembly easier in the long-run, but would be a bit more expensive. Other students thought it might be better to create a stanchion system using more inexpensive chain material. And some, including Regan VanCleave, 16, a Discovery High junior, wanted to go with the ribbon material, but create a less expensive, manual ribbon rewind mechanism.

The best thing about using the school’s 3D printer, Herber said, was the machine’s ability to easily transform complex shapes into usable parts.

“You can have crazy ideas that can be made easily,” Herber said.

VanCleave said that, while she still misses being more hands-on in the fabrication shop, her advanced design/engineering/fabrication classes at Discovery High have functioned “pretty much the same” during the school district’s remote-learning phase.

“We’re still designing our prototypes and those conversations can all happen online,” VanCleave said.

Cavill said the students send information online and he and Whitefield print the prototype in the school’s fabrication lab, then send those parts out to their students so they can test the prototypes and make adjustments to their original designs.

Often, the students have to go through several prototypes before finding the one that will work best in a real-world situation.

“How many versions of the (eye shields) did we have?” Herber asked his teachers during a recent Zoom conversation. “Five, I think.”

“The students are learning how success requires failures,” Cavill added.

In the end, the students created stanchions that come in two sizes, with options for chains, manual-rewind ribbons and auto-rewind ribbons, that sell for $24 to $28 each compared to the normal cost of $40 to $60 per stanchion.

Any money they students make from the stanchion project will help fund Discovery High’s Makerspace and provide STEAM students with even more tools and materials in the future.

Camas-area robotics team seeks new members, preps for 2021 competitions

Ayla Crowell, 14, a freshman at Discovery High, worked on the Infinite Resource project, which created the eye shields and face shields for health care workers. She also is a member of the Camas FRC (FIRST Robotics Competition) Team 2471, which has been having trouble trying to recruit new members during the pandemic.

“Usually we go to outreach events and show the robot (Artemis) and go to open houses,” Crowell said. “We don’t have that this year, so we’re trying to find other methods and get people to go to the website. We’ve had online Zoom meetings and are getting emails out.”

The robotics team had an online “reveal” of their Artemis robot and are encouraging other Camas students interested in engineering and robotics to check out the group’s website at

The robotics team still plans to compete in 2021.

“We usually kickoff in January and use the fall to train students,” Whitefield said. “Normally, the big competitions are held in the spring. It’s slower than usual this year … but there will be an online competition of some sort, as far as we know.”

Gabe Guo, 17, a Camas High School senior, also helped with the Infinite Resource project and is the president of the 2471 FIRST robotics team and says the “Team Mean Machine’s” mission is to promote science, technology, engineering and mathematics in the community and give students a platform where they can learn robotics, machining, business, electrical and programming skills.

All Camas, Washougal and Hockinson students are eligible to join the 2471 robotics team.

And the robotics team is not the only organization recruiting students who needs a little extra academic stimulation during this period of remote learning.

To learn more about Discovery High, visit To learn more about the Camas-based FIRST Robotics Team 2471 “Team Mean Machine,” visit To learn more about project-based learning in the Camas School District, visit