Gentex engineer teaches STEM skills at student greenhouse

Elliot Busta isn’t a teacher but the Gentex engineer is playing a role in helping local students better understand Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM).

“I think teaching about the importance of planning during design has been the major STEM-related impact I’ve had,” he says.

When Holland Middle School (HMS) school asked the Zeeland-based global auto supplier for assistance with STEM activities through their greenhouse, the Mechanical Engineering Department — where Busta works — was eager to help. 

The request was routed through the Gentex Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Council, which is committed to building community partnerships, especially with local schools. The department formed a team and established a schedule to help once a week. Unfortunately, the team only made it to two planning/design sessions before COVID-19 shut everything down.

A commitment

With students and volunteers unable to be on the HMS campus, the team was unable to help students with the design process. However, Busta was passionate about the program and started volunteering at the greenhouse on Tuesdays when it opened for the community to harvest fruits and vegetables to take home.
Elliot Busta says he learns as much from the students as he teaches them.
While volunteering, he helps maintain and improve the greenhouse, acts as a positive role model for the students, and gives harvesting tours of the greenhouse to community

“One of the first things that stands out about his involvement is his commitment,” says Bill Boerman, Holland Middle School teacher and founder of the greenhouse. “He lives in Grand Rapids, and, after working a full day, is willing to head into Holland, volunteer for two hours, and then drive all the way home. Just his willingness to do that has stood out to me.”

Using skills

Volunteering at the greenhouse has been an opportunity for Busta to teach the HMS students about STEM and make further use of his mechanical engineering expertise. To young students, learning about STEM in a classroom can feel very abstract, but having programs like this allows them to utilize what they learn and could even help them find a passion for engineering.

Though not every engineering/design project is the same, the skills learned in one project can easily be applied to others. Busta has seen this firsthand when working on improvement projects at the greenhouse.

“When the other Gentex volunteers and I went to HMS in early March, we each worked with a small group of students to create the greenhouse layout, order plants, design the garden boxes, etc.,” he explains. “I think helping them to draw out distances between plants (taking into account their projected fully grown size) and space out the boxes appropriately (leaving room for walking and harvesting) teaches foresight and geometry. These are foundational concepts I use every day in my design work.” 

Student creativity

At the greenhouse, volunteers learn from the students as much as they teach them. Young people tend to be more honest and creative. This is a great asset when working on engineering projects at the greenhouse and beyond.
Bill Boerman, Holland Middle School teacher and founder of the greenhouse, speaks with Gentex engineer Elliot Busta
“As far as creativity, the students are good at thinking completely out-of-the-garden-box,” Busta says. “For example, when designing a cage for the cucumber plants to climb, one of the students came up with a ceiling-hung cage. That design had the benefit of potentially needing much less wood and instead used cord as the primary building material.” 

Young students don’t hide their feelings, which makes it very clear when they have lost interest in what someone is saying. This has led Busta to get to the point when talking about engineering — with both students and adults — rather than focusing on irrelevant details.

Helping the community

As founder of the greenhouse, Boerman spends a lot of time there with students and volunteers. He enjoys listening to some of the student-volunteer interactions.

Boerman says he has watched Busta work with a student named Phlip to brainstorm ideas of ways they could control our pickle plants.

“Watching how Philip would listen to Elliot (a ‘real’ engineer versus ‘just the teacher’ who says it) and how they worked together was fun to see,” Boerman says. “From a volunteer standpoint, it is an opportunity to both speak into the next generation and help your community at the same time.” 

Operations at the greenhouse pre-pandemic made it possible for it to positively impact the Holland community once COVID-19 struck. Produce that is not taken home by harvesters is donated to Community Action House. From mid-May to the beginning of July, the greenhouse harvested and donated 130 pounds of produce to the Holland nonprofit that provides food to those in need. 

The greenhouse is open to the community on Tuesdays from 6 to 7 p.m. Anyone can stop by to harvest the vegetables for free. Boerman says it can also be a fun family outing to show children how plants grow.
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