Article by Maryann Fusco-Rollins
Sean Murdock of Tolland was 8 years old, and out playing baseball that he first heard about 4-H. In between innings he and a teammate started talking about their hobbies, and interest in building with their hands. Sean enjoyed learning how things worked and took household items apart and rebuilt them. That day, Sean learned about a local 4-H small engine club called the Piston Pushers.
Sean went to observe a 4-H meeting at the barn of 4-H leader Mike Hoffman. There he met Mike Hoffman and Mark Kloter, co-leaders of the Piston Pushers 4-H club. The barn houses a workshop, and the club’s business and project meetings are held there. Sean joined the Piston Pushers 4-H club in 2010, and started learning how to safely and efficiently rebuild a tractor. He hoped to enter, and one day win, the UConn Tolland County 4-H Fair small engine and tractor pulling competitions.
At the 2016 Tolland County 4-H Fair, Sean won best of show for his tractor and placed third in the tractor-pulling contest, pulling 4,050 pounds. He also received a blue ribbon and best in show for a 3D printer he built and entered. Sean credits Mr. Hoffman with teaching him everything he knows about tractors and small engine design. “The 4-H logs and financial recordkeeping component taught me important organizational skills,” Sean says. But most important, Sean attributes gaining self-confidence in his abilities, to working with Mr. Kloter.
“Mr. Kloter always encourages me to take the next step,” Sean continues. “It was Mr. Kloter who encouraged me to join the 4-H Fair Board of Directors (Fairboard) in 2014. Mr. Kloter is a part of the Fairboard Advisory Committee and thought I would enjoy the experience.” Fairboard is made up 4-H members; ages 12-18, who plan all aspects of the annual 4-H Fair. Over 2,000 people attend the Tolland County 4-H Fair each year. With Mr. Kloter’s encouragement, Sean ran for and was recently voted in as an officer for 2017. It was also because of Mr. Kloter’s encouragement that Sean entered his 3D printer in the 2016 Tolland County 4-H Fair.
Sean built his 3D printer from a kit. He improved on the kit design and created a metal frame to replace the kit’s plywood frame, by sourcing his own parts, cutting a plywood frame, then updating the frame by sending out the design to a machine show to get it cut in a thicker cold roll steel. Sean taught himself the Computer Aided Design (CAD) programming. Mr. Kloter was very impressed with Sean’s work and wanted him to enter it in the fair along with his tractor. Sean was apprehensive about entering his 3D printer and speaking to the public about his work. Sean explained, “If it wasn’t for Mr. Kloter encouraging me to enter my 3D printer in the Fair, I wouldn’t have been able to take advantage of all the other opportunities that have happened.” Winning at the 4-H Fair was just the start of an impressive summer for Sean.
As Sean was preparing for the 2016 4-H Fair, his former teacher Celeste Estevez was attending the UConn Engineering Joule Fellows program. The Fellowship brings K-12 teachers from across Connecticut to the Storrs campus for a six-week summer engineering program. While attending, Ms. Estevez talked to Reza Amin, a graduate student with the Tasoglu Research Group, about Sean and how he helped the Tolland Middle School to get a 3D printer.
“I had been interested in having a printer for our school, but cost was a barrier,” Ms. Estevez says. “Also, there were no other printers in the district and no one with expertise on how to run or maintain them. I had been talking with Sean about 3D printing since he was in 6th grade and at the end of 7th grade I asked him if he would be willing to suggest a kit that he would then build for us. He agreed and then he presented the budget request to the PTO. At the meeting, he gave an overview of 3D printing, brought some of his models, and showed a video of his machine in action, demonstrating his knowledge of additive mechanics. After seeing and listening to Sean, the PTO voted unanimously to approve $1000 for all the parts for the kit, and 8 rolls of filament. I created the SPARK award in honor of Sean.” The annual award recognizes students who use their talents and do something that ‘sparks’ activity in and for the school.
The Tasoglu Research Group invited Sean to work on a project this past summer, and he built a chip microscopy holder. Mr. Amin said that Sean worked so well on his first assignment, that they asked him to join the team. The lab typically takes on promising undergraduate students and teaches them how to properly conduct research. “This is the first time we have asked a high school student to join us,” Mr. Amin says. Because of his experience in 4-H, when the Tasoglu Research Group spoke with Sean about joining their lab, he was ready.
Sean Murdock is presently in 9th grade. He is a member of the Piston Pushers 4-H club and Second Vice President of the 4-H Fairboard. He is working on an electromagnet design for the Tasoglu Research Group. He hopes to attend UConn and is interested in electro mechanical engineering and computer science.