Oaks Christian Engineering Students Solve Real-World Problems

Not too long ago, Oaks Christian faculty and staff started asking What if questions.

What if we could create a space where students could be innovators and creators? What if that space would give our students a jump in the STEM fields? What if students invented not just for the sake of invention, but to solve real-world problems to improve people’s quality of life?

Four years later, the question is no longer What If, but What Next?

In just 4 short years, a former pet supply building has become a modern, state-of-the-art Ross Family IDEA Lab, home to the OCS Institute of Engineering which focuses on aerospace, electrical, biomedical, industrial, architectural and environmental/humanitarian fields of study. In May 2023, the first seniors to complete their course of study presented their capstone projects to a full house.

“Four years ago, this was all just a dream,” said Associate Head of School for Academics and Arts Dr. Matt Northrop. “We have come so far, so fast. And it's not that we are so impressed with the presentations, but that we know these students will be difference makers, change-makers in our world who will, no doubt, be a light.”

Students shared their yearlong process from postulation of an idea or thesis, discover (research) phase, modifications (failure/try again) phase and completion (success/works) phase. Skills learned included critical thinking, risk taking, idea articulation and vision, and collaboration.

“These students exemplify grit and perseverance. They understand that you need to ask for help from your team. You can’t go it alone,” said Institute Director and Engineering Teacher Greg Gillis-Smith. “These are life skills they are learning here.” 

Tyler Moore invented a custom 3D-printed surfboard with pressure-controlled fins that allowed a wider range of control. 

“One of the important things I have learned from Dr. Moon (math and electrical engineering teacher) is to keep trying,” he said. “When we submit something, we aren’t just done. Every mistake on the board is a signal to me to keep improving. Otherwise, I am not an engineer: I am just a tinkerer,” said Moore.

That mindset is what distinguishes the OCS engineering students. They don’t see themselves as just students but as bona fide engineers ready to contribute to industry and the world.

Moore, along with classmate Tim Kabilafkas, also designed an anti-theft gasoline cap to solve the problem of gasoline and diesel fuel theft from automobiles, a definite real-world problem with the high price of gas today. Through extensive testing and product research they are now ready to market their invention, moving from the What If to the What Next stage.

For most high schoolers, the thought of being published in an international journal is far-fetched. But for OCS senior Kayla Youhanaie, it’s just another notch in her engineering belt.

Beginning last year, Youhanaie worked with fellow students Finley Buckner, Kenny Dott, Sammy Jackovich, Alex Leal, Hope Mbakadi Jr., Daniel Niednagel, Aiden Rouse, Haven Tan, and Enming (Tiger) Zhang on a water purification device. The device is the result of a partnership with an organization called Global Bridges. For the past 3 years, the OCS Institute of Engineering worked with Global Bridges to design water storage and distribution systems for rural villages in Honduras and Nicaragua.

“We are able to talk to the community using Zoom, trying to figure out the best way that we can help them,” explained Gillis-Smith. “We met Maria, a single mom with a couple of kids, and she said of her jobs that she does is to do people's laundry. She takes the laundry out to the river and washes the laundry. So, we said, ‘You have a river. Why are we designing all this system that has a well and all this if you guys have a river that you can use?’”

The reason the river could not be used is because of the contaminated surface water. It is completely polluted through farms and waste upstream, with no way of purifying it. Because of that, Gillis-Smith challenged his students to find a way to purify the water in the most cost-effective way possible.

“We were really inspired by how that project could have real-world impact and help real people and how water is such an important kind of necessity of life,” said Youhanaie, who is headed to Northwestern University to study mechanical engineering this fall. “We started by researching how water is purified: heat, UV and ozone. We split up into groups and researched the energy efficiency of each of those methods and concluded that ozone was the most efficient way.”

Students built a prototype of the purification system. It started with a repurposed 35-gallon fish tank and some solar panels. After they ran the first tests with local pond water that tested positive for bacteria such as e coli, the class realized that although the ozone was purifying the water, there were still particulates that were byproducts of the purification. The team added a sand filter to target the particulates, and after the final tests, put the water in a petri dish to test it. The results came back that the water was 100% pure and safe.

After the system was confirmed to work, the process of publishing the findings was next. The class finished at the end of the 2021-22 school year, so Youhanaie took it upon herself to write the research reports. The findings were published by the International Conference on Water Pollution and Purification Technologies.

Youhanaie spoke about the Institute of Engineering and how it has prepared her for a future in the engineering field.

“The institute really trained me how to think like an engineer and know how to identify a problem that doesn't have a solution and then figure out how to solve the problem without using worksheets like a normal class. You just have to kind of figure it out. That prepared me for engineering: thinking about innovative or creative solutions to real-world problems that need solutions and then using engineering to solve those problems.”

To learn more about Oaks Christian, visit

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