MORRICE— High School senior Rhianna Lucas is enjoys classes that encourage her to work with her hands, as well as her brain.

She said her favorite classes have involved project-based learning — including a course combining geometry and shop, as well as a course combining biology and art.

“Instead of doing units and taking notes and then taking a test, you actually get to apply the knowledge you’re using to create projects and solve problems — it’s a lot more applicable to real-life learning,” Lucas said.

This fall, Lucas, a 4.0 student, will enroll at the University of Michigan to pursue a degree in environmental engineering, a field she said needs more attention.

“I’m extremely passionate about environmental preservation, about the climate crisis, because I think it’s something really important, something we all need to be worried about,” she said. “The IPCC report released by the UN’s council on climate change says that we have 12 years left to switch to renewable power before we do irreversible damage to the environment, so I think it’s a really important field that needs a lot of people pushing for it and pushing hard in the near future because we need to make changes quickly.”

The decision to pursue environmental engineering as opposed to public policy or environmental science comes from a passion for working hands-on to find solutions, according to Lucas, though the 17-year-old hadn’t decided on a career in engineering until last year.

“I’ve always been kind of interested in it (engineering) but I never really thought of it as like a career path because like we’re in a fairly rural area. Growing up in the country, you go outside and tinker with things and just figure it out, but I never really thought of it as a career path until I started robotics,” Lucas said.

In January 2018, during her junior year, Lucas joined Morrice High School’s first ever robotics team on a whim, after a friend convinced her to sign up. It’s an extracurricular offered at many high schools around the world, in which teams are presented a challenge and given six weeks to design, build and code a robot capable of completing it, with students doing all of the work.

Lucas, the daughter of Dave and Kelly Lucas, said the team had very few resources with it being the first year, but she loved it nonetheless and decided to compete once again this year.

“We were building a robot with a hand saw and a drill press, so to be able to build a robot that could complete the challenge and compete with other robots who have hundreds of members on their teams and coaches who’ve been there for tens of years…being able to build something and say ‘look, I made that robot with my friends in the bus garage, and it competes with these huge schools’ robots, that’s pretty awesome,” Lucas said.

Her experience with the robotics team ultimately led her to pursue environmental engineering instead of public policy, she said. A trip to the Women in Engineering Camp at Kettering University in Flint, provided by the Cook Family Foundation as part of the Shiawassee Scholar program, further cemented her decision.

“For two weeks, we were in classes from 7 a.m. until 5 p.m. every day doing engineering classes with real professors and that really made me realize like, this is definitely what I want to do. I love doing this,” Lucas said.

Lucas added that she chose Michigan not only because it is one of the only schools to offer environmental engineering, but also because of the impression the university made on her when she visited in eighth grade as part of Shiawassee Scholars.

“Every time I’ve went to campus since then it just feels like where I want to be,” Lucas said. “I really like that it’s a more elite school so there’s going to be a lot of challenge and a lot of people there challenging me — that’s an environment I like to be in.”

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