Device prototype floating in blue pool

Two FRCC students’ engineering project could help revolutionize how humans clean up oil spills.

When I walked into professor Anne Wrobetz’s engineering design class for the first time in the spring of 2022, I never imagined that my work there would take me most of the way across the country. But here I am on the East Coast—competing with some of the brightest students I’ve ever met!

Along with my classmate Xavier Cotton, that Front Range Community College class catapulted us into a whole new realm of learning. Our team’s adventure shows how far hard work and determination can take you. In our case, all the way to the Washington, DC.

That’s where we won 2nd place in June at the national Community College Innovation Challenge (CCIC), hosted by the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC).

About Me

My name is Cristian Madrazo. (That’s me on the left!) I grew up in Commerce City, a small industrial town on the outskirts of Denver.

My first language is Spanish—and when I was little I attended a Spanish-only public school. I started to really learn English when I was around 10 years old. (I speak it fluently now, but still sometimes worry that I’m not being as clear as I would like.)

I supported myself financially through most of high school, and I had to take on many different jobs to get by. The work that was most influential to me was in construction and warehousing. I looked up to many of the people I had met in that industry—so right after graduating from high school, I pursued a degree in business logistics.

A New Path at FRCC

I have been at Front Range Community College for a little more than three years now. I started off studying business in the summer of 2019. I earned an associate degree in logistics in 2021.

Then without skipping a beat, I changed paths and started over as a prospective architectural engineering student that same year. Many things drew me to architectural engineering. The biggest thing for me is that it combines my passions of construction, math and science.

One year into my engineering program, I met my good friend, Xavier Cotton. Xavier is a sophomore computer science major. We didn’t really seem to have much in common at first.

Differing Interests, New Perspectives

We often disagreed in class and our styles regularly clashed. My absolute favorite activities involve the outdoors and sports, whereas Xavier is more of a gamer and techie. But not surprisingly, we realized you can learn a lot from people who are different from you.

As time went by, we both learned that we had one important thing in common: determination.

We both have academic goals that we are very determined to achieve. As we began working closely with each other in class, we realized that our completely different perspectives gave us one of our biggest advantages as a team.

Engineering Design: The Ins & Outs

The process that engineers typically use to find solutions to problems is quite complex. It is known as the engineering design process.

Engineering students are introduced to this concept during their first-year design course, which typically involves a semester-long team project.

I had the opportunity to take this course in the spring of 2022 with Professor Wrobetz. She’s an environmental engineer from CU-Boulder and is currently a graduate student at Purdue University. Our teacher also has years of experience in the engineering industry. This adventure begins in her class.

A Challenge

Professor Wrobetz assigned us to teams of four and presented us a challenge. We were expected to solve a real-world problem through research and interviews with friends and family. We would all participate in a collegewide expo at the end of the semester, in which a panel of experts would select winning teams and award scholarships.

So our team started to get to know each other. First, there was Jacob Krajnik—a proud Army veteran. Just like me, he also had experience in construction. Then there was Ben Nienhouse. Ben is more into cars and hitting the gym, two things I could totally relate to.

This engineering course is also where I met Xavier. All four of us formed team Green Spoons, as we called ourselves. We started working right away on choosing a problem statement—and we immediately hit a wall.

Small Idea, Big Impact

After weeks of debating and doing research, we came across a video that grabbed our attention. A non-profit organization was making these mats out of hair and trying to clean up oil spills with them.

Team Green Spoons set out to find a better way to use hair to clean oil spills. In our information-gathering phase of the project, we did initial interviews—with a wildlife expert and a local geological engineer—to validate our problem statement.

Early Drafts and Redesigns

In engineering, you test things out to see if they work. When they don’t, you try something new.

For our project, we followed the eight steps of the engineering design process, as outlined in our CU-Boulder Introductory Design Textbook. These are the basic steps we followed:

  • Ask—Identify the need and constraints
  • Research the problem
  • Imagine—Develop possible solutions
  • Plan—Select a promising solution
  • Create—Build a prototype
  • Test and evaluate the prototype
  • Improve—Redesign as needed

Over the course of several weeks, we went through several iterations. Each one consisted of a major change to one or more components of the design. Typically, after each iteration we also conducted additional expert stakeholder interviews—with engineers of different specialties (such as mechanical, petroleum and environmental engineering). Throughout this process, we made our decisions using an assessment matrix to evaluate and rank the designs objectively.

A Whale of a Design

Iteration #4 stood out as our first concrete design that ranked acceptably in our matrix. Our boat-style design swallowed a large amount of water, filtered out the oil using hair—and then spit the cleaner water back out.

We called it the “Orca”, because it followed a similar pattern as feeding whales—except instead of consuming krill for nourishment, our “whale” was sucking in oil. For this iteration we also chose to invest some resources into a “visual-aid” prototype that would allow us to present the design more efficiently.

Morphing Into a Drone

Iteration 5 naturally aimed to improve on the aspects of the boat design that caused it to score low on certain requirements—things like:

  • air transportability
  • multiple-unit interface
  • operator safety
  • operator training time

After following the design process again, and speaking with a robotics engineer, we modified the nature of our design dramatically. It now became more of a drone than a boat. We made other changes to reduce its weight, increase stability and increase efficiency.

We opted to create a working-prototype to showcase our final iteration—at one-tenth the size of a what it would look like in the real-world. At the end of the spring semester, our team was selected as the 1st place winner of the FRCC Engineering Expo, with our project: The Orca.

A New Opportunity

Final prototype

Halfway through the semester, professor Wrobetz shared with us an interesting opportunity. This national innovation competition was looking for applicants, and the finalists would be flown out to Washington D.C. for a week during the summer to learn and compete.

Jacob and Ben had prior commitments for the summer, so Xavier and I formed a new team for the Community College Innovation Challenge (CCIC). We named ourselves the Front Range Whales.

Professor Wrobetz also got us in contact with FRCC computer science faculty member Diane Rhodes, who became the mentor for our team in the national competition. She ended up being one of our biggest supporters.

More Work, New Success

Competing in the CCIC immediately added significant workload for both Xavier and me. The application requirements alone took us several days—including a couple of all-nighters. Xavier and I were determined, and Professor Rhodes provided us a great deal of encouragement.

Later in the spring, we got word that we were being chosen as finalists in the CCIC—out of all the teams of students from around the US. We were going to DC!

At that point, Xavier and I revamped our entire design and made a new prototype from scratch. This was the jump from our fourth to our fifth iteration.

I estimate that we spent more than 100 work-hours perfecting our new design in preparation for the CCIC bootcamp in Washington, DC. We also had to prepare a large poster for the poster-pitch presentation session—a portion of the bootcamp that required several more rounds of stakeholder interviews. We even got to interview two engineers who actually worked on oil-spills and equipment manufacturing.

Arriving at the CCIC Bootcamp

Our first day in D.C. did not go as planned (to say the least). Unfortunately, I missed my flight that Sunday morning. The Bootcamp started on Monday and Xavier had been hoping to explore DC all day.

When I finally got there later in the evening, we rented some electric scooters and quickly got lost. I also lost my credit card at some point in there. Rough start.

The next day, we were stunned by the amazing reception. We were given a three-course meal and the chance to hear from a panel of previous participants who shared their stories with us.

In Good Company

We also got to work with some of the other teams— and I was shocked at how remarkable their projects were! For the rest of the bootcamp, two individuals were the primary speakers: Grant Warner and Joe Schreiber. Both presented in such a riveting style that it really captured our attention.

Grant is an innovation and entrepreneurship leader at Howard University who has also co-founded his own social analytics platform. Joe is a communication-strategist with decades of success in video-production—he’s won 13 Emmy Awards—and has experience as a senior producer at NBC Universal.

Their topics ranged from pitching ideas to investors to answering questions effectively—and even networking. They made it clear we weren’t there to do more science. We were there to learn how to better communicate the science we had already done.

The Poster Session

On the third day of the bootcamp, you could feel the energy in the air. Everyone was ecstatic to finally show off their hard work that evening. It was time for the poster presentation.

We shuttled to the Library of Congress and set up shop. The next two hours were a blur as we prepared our exhibit.

Xavier and I explained our project to countless people of all backgrounds. Some were students, others were involved in government, and others were investors. However, only three were judges—and they loved what we had to say!

More Work to Do

Once we got back to the hotel that night, Xavier and I were spent. He shared with me that his “social battery was drained.”

Unfortunately, we still had work to do. We had a final pitch the following day, and it would make or break us at this point. After rehearsing several more times, we decided to get some sleep and pick things back up in the morning.

The Final Pitch

Now today’s the day. Xavier and I successfully run a final rehearsal of our big pitch without any mistakes. We look at each other cheerfully—we’re convinced our unique style of delivery is sure to stand out.

We catch Joe Schreiber, one of our expert presenters, walking by and ask him his thoughts. With a huge smile on his face, he gives his approval!

It’s time for the pitches. Teams will go in random order—and before we know it, Front Range Community College is called up. All I remember is Professor Rhodes giving me two thumbs up as we take a seat.

Shortly after that, Front Range is announced as the 2nd place winner!

Our Takeaways

Our last day there is Friday, and luckily, Xavier and I get another opportunity to explore the area. While biking across Virginia and DC, we discuss how we both grew and changed through this experience.

Some areas where we especially matured are teamwork, communication and problem solving. We both conclude that we feel validation for the work and effort we’ve put into our education up to this point.

It wasn’t easy getting here. Whether it was because of a disagreement, or we had too much else on our plates, we both had times where we were tempted to throw in the towel.

In the end, it was hard work and determination that got us to this point.

Next Steps—and Gratitude

Next up, I plan to transfer to a four-year university for the spring semester (in early 2023). Nothing is set in stone yet, but I am leaning heavily towards going to CU-Boulder.

I intend to work towards a master’s degree in architectural engineering. In the longer term, I would like to eventually start my own firm, given my background in business… and now engineering.

I am very thankful to FRCC and to the American Association of Community Colleges for providing our team this opportunity and supporting us throughout. I am also very thankful to my Professors Anne Wrobetz and Diane Rhodes. And of course, to my engineering partner Xavier for being a part of this unexpected adventure!

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