Students Machine Parts for International Space Station

Students from Ogemaw Heights High School’s Machine Shop Program and instructor Kyle Sysco (front row, center) are visited by Stacy Hale (front row, far right), founder and projects manager of NASA HUNCH, Houston, Texas. Hale congratulated the class on the successful manufacture of 200 parts for the International Space Station. (All photos provided by Ogemaw Heights High School)

Kyle Sisco started his career as a machinist—a role he truly enjoyed. But the part of his job he liked most was teaching coworkers how to problem-solve difficulties and choose toolpaths for themselves. In 2007, Sisco’s former machining instructor at Ogemaw Heights High School in West Branch, Mich., tapped him as his successor as he moved into an administrative position.

Sisco’s aptitude for machining and teaching made him a natural fit for the role.

Sisco believes that getting students familiar with the CNC software and machines as soon as possible is what gets them and keeps them engaged with the program. His curriculum is centered around using and doing. Then, as students advance through the program, Sisco finds real-world jobs for them to complete. “They have to know the entire process,” Sisco said. “I want them to know the reality of making parts—from planning through inspection.”

For example, his class recently made exit signs for their school’s doors and room number signage for all buildings in their district. These and other projects allow students to produce things they can see every day and take pride in, but the program’s real goal is to make sure each student can walk into any machine shop ready to hit the ground running once they graduate. To do this, Sisco casts a wide net, doing everything from Google searches to working with an advisory board of local machine shop owners to help him find classroom projects, co-op learning opportunities, and jobs. Anything to excite the students’ imaginations and give them practical experience.

More than a Hunch

Sisco eventually discovered NASA’s HUNCH (High Schools United with NASA to Create Hardware) program, which was founded 17 years ago to give students new educational experiences by producing training and research items for the International Space Station (ISS). Although Sisco immediately began the application process, it took a few years of working with both NASA and his local school administration to earn a project in the program. In 2019, with school and district administrators’ help, Sisco’s class won a HUNCH project to create a part similar to a locking nut for experiments on the ISS.

Once the school entered into a Space Act agreement with NASA, the agency sent the students an order for 50 pieces along with the prints and materials they would need to produce them. Sisco handed everything over to his students—leaving them to work out the processes and toolpaths they would need to finish the part—offering guidance only when asked.

Knowing they would have to make parts on at least two different machines, the students created a few processes that would accomplish what they wanted to do using CNC Software LLC’s Mastercam software. The students narrowed down their choices to three optimized toolpaths and processes, then they tried short batches from all three to see which worked best. The only stipulation Sisco made was that the parts had to be produced in a continuous cycle. He wanted them to run the job as if they were in a real shop.

“It was them (the students) programming it, setting it up, and inspecting it,” Sisco enthused. “They did everything. My role was basically as a liaison between my students and the folks at NASA.”

Students machined their own soft jaws and inspected the parts at every step, including work on the mill. They produced 62 pieces in the first run, using only one of the four bars of material they were given. Sisco contacted HUNCH to see if he should return the other three bars or continue running parts. The program manager, pleasantly surprised, told him to run additional parts with the remaining material.

When the students were done, they washed the parts, packaged them, and mailed them back to NASA. Ultimately, the Ogemaw students made 200 parts, all of which passed inspection and were delivered to the International Space Station for flight assembly of stowage lockers.

NASA was so impressed it sent a program director from Houston to meet the students and see firsthand how they accomplished the task. Naturally, the students were thrilled. They were used to visits from teachers and local machine shop owners, but a NASA engineer was beyond their dreams.

“The kids loved showing off what they did,” Sisco noted.

Custom oil filter socket, programmed in Mastercam and machined by Ogemaw Heights High School students.

Turnkey Graduates

Projects such as NASA HUNCH give students an exciting look into how they will be able to use their skills after graduation. Sisco’s goal is to make sure his students are “turnkey graduates,” able to walk out of school and into the next phase of their lives, ready to go. He takes a hands-off approach himself, so his students can be hands on.

From day one to graduation, every step is dedicated to learning by doing. The first classes are for basic learning—reading blueprints, fundamentals of the machines, and understanding the various metals. Using liberal tolerances and simple parts, Sisco gets students comfortable with the machines.

Like similar initiatives across the country, Ogemaw’s Machine Shop Program relies on donated and deeply discounted machines, software, and materials to educate its students.

“When companies take the time to get involved with schools like ours, it really helps,” Sisco said. “I know Mastercam offers a considerable discount to get its products into schools, and Haas does, too. The school’s equipment is not here for show,” the instructor noted. “The dings and dents make it evident that students use these machines.”

Sisco explained that, as students get comfortable, they start to visualize the different ways they can program and machine a part. In addition, class participants often come up with new parts to make, which Sisco feels reinforces what they are learning and gives them confidence in their abilities.

Ogemaw Heights High School Machine Shop students, with assistance from a Haas Technician, update CNC control software.

Simply setting up a CNC machine and making quality parts is not always good enough, however. Sisco wants his students to watch the part as it is being machined, considering factors like drill speed and operation changes that could improve part quality and reduce cycle times. In his typical style, Sisco offers minimal instruction on part programming and verification; once students get to the point where they are familiar with generating toolpaths, he gives them parts and projects and the rest is up to them.

“It’s really neat to watch these students and their creativity in how they go about making things,” he said.

Producing the maximum parts with minimum materials is the goal of shops of all sizes, and it’s critical for a high school with limited funds. The Ogemaw Heights High School program had another incentive, as students weren’t just making any old parts—their creations were literally taking flight.

Many of the advanced students are working on co-op projects provided by machine shop owners on Ogemaw’s advisory board. To give them a good idea of what their earning potential will be, Sisco makes sure the co-ops are paid positions, averaging $15-$20 per hour—higher than the typical after-school job.

Co-op or not, all of Sisco’s students graduate with the skills they need to be turnkey employees—how to program parts using CAD/CAM software, how to set up and produce those parts, and, perhaps most importantly, how to use software to experiment with new toolpaths and parameters to find more efficient processes, saving time and money. And, in this case, NASA gave them an experience they won’t soon forget.

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