Willcox High School Senior Recognized by Junior Achievement
By Luke Kauffman – Special to the Arizona Range News
April 27, 2020
Willcox senior Laura Dunham, 18, has won a 2020 Junior Achievement 18 Under 18 Award for teaching young students basic robotics. The award recognizes Arizona students who have “started nonprofits, built small businesses, created networks and solved problems.”
“Watch out for Laura — the next community leader,” said Willcox Middle School seventh grade science teacher Rebecca Bhasme, who taught alongside Dunham and nominated her for the award.
Bhasme said Dunham connected well with younger students to teach them “absolutely new” concepts, and is impressed with her volunteerism, leadership and activity outside of the program. She is not surprised Dunham won.
Dunham’s advanced chemistry teacher is also impressed by her.
“I think (Dunham) is a very deserving student who, last year too but this year especially, tried to step up and she’s demonstrated that she deserves recognition like this,” Ty White said.
Dunham serves as FFA secretary, student council historian, and an honorary officer for the school science club this year. She will likely attend the University of Arizona and pursue a degree in either electrical or chemical engineering. After school, she plans to either work at Intel, or as a cosmetic engineer, depending on her degree.
She’s pursuing engineering because, “I get to make a change in the world, even if it’s little or big.”
This year, Dunham logged 300 hours of volunteer work through AmeriCorps and 4-H, spending much of that time teaching a 4-H SPIN (Special Interest) class for young students in basic programing and electrical engineering through robotics.
She served as a liaison between 4-H agent Peter Hooper at the University of Arizona’s Cooperative Extension and educators as well as teaching. Dunham used EV3 Lego robotics kits — which are designed for children as young as 10 — to teach elementary and middle-schoolers in Willcox and Pearce.
“At first, I was a little uncertain about (teaching) just because I didn’t think I would be good at it, but it ended up being a really cool experience,” Dunham said.
She enjoyed watching her young students become inspired as she introduced them to subjects they learn little about at their age.
“Everything’s so agriculture-based (in Willcox), which isn’t a bad thing, but it’s cool to broaden the spectrum of STEM.”
Dunham said the 18 Under 18 organization “realized how much of an impact the class made on younger students in the community.” She is also impressed by her co-recipients, some of whom are “CEOs of their own companies.”
Bhasme noticed the impact too, saying many of her female students tell her, “We want to be engineers like Laura… we want to do something in engineering and mechanics and robotics.” She wants Laura to speak during the first week of her class next year to inspire more involvement in STEM.
Dunham said she wanted “to recognize Cochise County 4-H and the Willcox Middle School STEM club. They played a pretty big role in me getting the award, as well as all of my high school clubs that I was involved in.” She is also appreciative of Bhasme.
Before Dunham started focusing on engineering, she devoted 16 hours a week to practicing dance in Safford and was considering a career in interior design. She says these are “complete opposite” of her current plans.
This change in aspirations came as a surprise to her parents and teachers, but they supported her as she explored her new interest in engineering.
“I didn’t really know the power of knowledge, basically, until my junior, senior year… but I really love to push myself as far as I can,” she said.
Her advanced chemistry class allowed her to do so. In January, Dunham and her classmate Rebecca Collins, 17, started engineering a calorimeter (a device used to measure heat in chemical reactions) out of a Hydroflask. Dunham’s class could not afford the device, but she and Collins took initiative and made one for $60.
“It was a heck of a project. I’m very, very proud of what they build,” said White.
Dunham and Collins went on to place second at the YES (Youth Engineering and Science) fair and third at the SARSEF (Southern Arizona Research, Science and Engineering Foundation) fair with the Hydroflask calorimeter. Dunham said engineering and presenting the project “was probably the biggest experience that inspired me to change my career.”
“(Her) drive and motivation were most of the reason why I stayed engaged and excited about our project. I would say that she was probably the best person I could have been partnered with,” Collins said.
Collins was surprised by her classmate’s new aspirations, although she knows they are “not beyond what she is capable of.”
Dunham might have big dreams, but STEM outreach and education in rural areas is important to her. Over the summer of last year, she met former Intel electrical engineer Hal Thompson, and his wife, a current Intel employee, Leslie, through 4-H. Leslie Thompson oversees outreach to prospective employees (among other things) at Intel’s branch in Chandler.
Dunham job shadowed her and learned a lot about the industry, which made the senior seriously consider a career at the company. Dunham wants to provide similar opportunities to local students in the future.
“I would like to be able to come back to Willcox… and tell everyone my story and that it’s not impossible to come from a small town and make a big change,” she said.
Junior Achievement will recognize the students during a virtual event on Friday, May 15 at 4 p.m.