Engineering team uses interdisciplinary approach to create award-winning African spear

A team of five engineering students collaborated with industry partners, faculty from another discipline and an African tribal elder to create a steel spearhead for a collegiate competition that resembles the History Channel's "Forged in Fire" show.

Their efforts, particularly connecting with a leader from the Maasai tribe in Kenya, earned the GVSU Casting Club third place overall in the 42-team “Cast in Steel” competition. They earned first place for best design and process in the competition hosted by the Steel Founders’ Society of America that was held in late April in Cleveland, Ohio.

six people standing, one holding spear, next to poster of Cast in Steel team names all with university logos
From left are students Eric Spindler, Rock Phelps, Nathan Vugteveen, David Pevic, Jarrett Folkert and Abishek Balsamy Kamaraj, assistant professor of engineering and the club's faculty advisor.
Image credit - courtesy photo

Jarrett Folkert, who earned a bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering in April, said after learning the call for competition was to create "an African spear," the team knew a lot of research was necessary.

"We needed something to land on," Folkert said. "Would it be from the Zulu, or from somewhere in Somalia? We needed to have context."

Teammate Eric Spindler, an interdisciplinary engineering major, has a brother who earned a degree in anthropology from Grand Valley. Through that connection, Spindler found Kristin Hedges, associate professor of anthropology. Hedges was a Peace Corps volunteer in Kenya in the early 2000s and continues to work with the Maasai tribe on traditional herbal medicines. It was Hedges who connected the team with Joseph Ole Kipila, who had been her supervisor during her Peace Corps stint.

"Joseph is a naturally gifted teacher," Hedges said. "He explained that spears are used for rituals and in defense. The team had several calls with him. A key to the design process was his advice that the hollow socket at the end of the spear needed to be at least as long as a pencil."

The team created eight iterations of the spearhead. It was cast by Eagle Alloy in Muskegon, the team's industry partner, and heat treated at Hansen Balk Steel Treating Company in Grand Rapids.

detail of spear head with GVSU and rope details
Close-up of the spear head is pictured. Teams in the competition had to demonstrate their spears on a piece of 18-gauge steel, vinyl carpet and block of wood.
Image credit - courtesy photo

Nathan Vugteveen, who is studying product design and manufacturing engineering, demonstrated use of the spear at the Ohio competition and agreed the socket was one key to their success. "We used a modified mop handle to meet the weight requirements," Vugteveen said. "All three of my hits in the steel were identical. Some teams had their handle break during that part of the competition."

Teams demonstrated their spears on a piece of 18-gauge steel, vinyl carpet and block of wood. A technical report was required. The GVSU team's 30-page report was called out by judges for "going above and beyond."

Rock Phelps, a mechanical engineering major, said the team showed Kipila their design and got his approval. "He said, 'You did exactly what I told you to do,'" Phelps said.

David Pevic, who is pursuing a master's degree in mechanical engineering, said the trial and error process and consultations with industry partners and faculty, plus Kipila, gave the team a real-world experience over two semesters.

"I'm interested in project management and interested in collaboration," Pevic said. "The best engineering out there is done through collaboration."

Phelps said they want to open the GVSU Casting Club up to all students next year and take on other projects in addition to the next Steel Founders’ Society of America competition. The team's faculty advisor was Abishek Balsamy Kamaraj, assistant professor of engineering. Students interested in joining the club can connect with Kamaraj via email.


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