There is a problem. There is a task. Something that works one way needs to work another way, and you need to figure out how to make that happen.
You have six hours.
That, in essence, was the challenge facing Kurtis Madden of Walpole, N.H., a recent graduate of Fall Mountain Regional High School, at the 2012 SkillsUSA National Leadership and Skills Conference held in Kansas, City, Mo., this past June.
He competed in Technical Drafting against 44 other high school students from across the country. His task included reverse engineering an automotive oil pump and creating industry-quality engineering drawing and assemblies that could be used by manufacturers to build pump elements.
But he didn't know how well.
"At first it's kind of intimidating," he said in a recent interview. "You have an idea from the beginning of what you need to do, but you have to get into the mindset and stay focused."
At the end of the competition, which ran just over six hours, Kurtis felt good about his work.
"Yeah, but it's hard to know how everyone else did," he said. "I knew what I did had potential, but I figured a lot of people did really well. There was no way I was going to place in the top three."
The next night, Kurtis and his fellow RVTC
The conference leaders read out the names of the winners one by one.
"I was in the audience, and they called out my name. I placed in the top three. It was awesome," he said. He sought more words to describe the moment. "There aren't really words for it. Exciting and awesome."
Kurtis received a National Silver Medal for his second-place finish.
"This was actually my second year competing there. Last year, the first time, I placed 22nd. It was more of a learning experience. I was new to everything, and I definitely didn't know as much as I know now. It was fun, but this year was totally different," he said.
Kurtis's catapult from 22nd to second place came from two elements. First, he has long known that he likes hands-on, problem-solving work.
"As a little kid I definitely liked cars and trucks and things like that, like most kids," he said. "I always liked to know how things work."
When he was in eighth grade or so, he happened to take a tour of RVTC with his classmates. There, he saw hands-on work and problem-solving as the core of the classwork. It was a simple decision to enroll in the Mechanical Design and Innovation program for his junior and senior years, on top of his Fall Mountain course load.
It was a perfect fit. The small classes were focused and interesting, and they gave Kurtis direct experience with modern engineering tools, including Computer-Aided Manufacturing, robotics, hydraulics and pneumatics.
Kurtis also had a teacher, Christopher Gray, he liked and respected.
"Oh, he's definitely the reason I learned so well," Kurtis said emphatically. "He was the biggest factor, plus my parents, who are my main support. He has so much experience as an actual engineer before he started teaching. It's not like he went to college and just learned
His natural abilities thrived at RVTC, leading to top finishes at state engineering competitions and highly regarded engineering certifications. In fact, two of the certifications he received are usually reserved for professional designers and engineers. The silver medal he earned in Kansas City was really a testament to an education designed to facilitate success.
Despite his achievements and talent, Kurtis has stayed practical and motivated, working at J and L Metrology in Springfield, spending time with friends and getting ready to leave home for college to study mechanical engineering.
"I'm going to Wentworth Institute of Technology in Boston," he said. "I go the 28th or 29th of August. I'm excited, not really nervous, but it is definitely going to be different than where I've been. I don't know where I'll go after college, either, because there are so many different jobs you can get in engineering. I guess I'll see what's out there."
There is a future out there, waiting to be designed. This is the challenge facing Kurtis, but he's not worried. He's got his family, his education, his hands and his mind. He's got the tools and time.