STUDENT SPOTLIGHT: McKay High School’s budding engineer looks to technology to help others

Lesly Rojas, McKay High School Class of 2021 (Courtesy photo)

Lesly Rojas had never touched a motherboard when a friend invited her to an engineering club meeting in seventh grade.

Before long, Rojas built a prosthetic arm.

“It was an amazing experience to see my invention come alive,” she said.

She’s been inventing and building ever since.

When she got to McKay High School, Rojas quickly joined the school’s Math Engineering Science Achievement club.

As a sophomore, she was part of a team that designed and built a prototype cup adapted to help people who have difficulty drinking and swallowing stay hydrated. The team was one of 15 from around the U.S. selected for a $10,000 grant from the Lemelson-MIT program to build their design.

The team traveled to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to present their work in June 2019.

“It was a dream come true,” Rojas said recently of the trip.

The pandemic and shift to online school made it more difficult for the group to continue work on that project. But Rojas, who’s always looking for new opportunities, got to work on another design competition aimed at helping people around her.

“We knew a lot of McKay is surrounded by a lot of agricultural and blueberry fields, and a lot of the family members or even the students themselves tend to work there,” she said.

Lesly Rojas, a sophomore at McKay High School, explains a circuit board to a younger student at a 2019 science fair at First Baptist Church in Salem. (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

Rojas led a student team that interviewed farmworkers, local farmers and agricultural experts about the challenges they faced on blueberry farms. Based on their work, the team designed two inventions.

One is a skirt-like attachment for existing catching systems aimed at reducing food waste and preventing fruit from being bruised during picking. Students found berries are often damaged from contact with surfaces while going through a picking machine, and included air jets in their design to redirect berries without bruising them.

Another is a cart that can be solar-powered or charged and runs itself along a track, sparing workers the tiring and time-consuming task of pushing carts around the field to transport berries.

“She took the lead on this and motivated a team of students that had never worked on a long-term invention project before,” said Katrina Hull, the engineering teacher at McKay.

The team of nine students were semi-finalists in Samsung’s Solve for Tomorrow competition, winning $15,000 for McKay’s engineering program in January.

Amid the chaos of returning to in-person school, team members haven’t yet been able to build prototypes of their designs. Rojas said she hopes to continue work on the project. Her goal is to create technology that helps people.

“Both the adaptive cup and the work that we were doing with the farmers, seeing it come alive in a way is really inspiring for me,” she said.

Rojas also sought out business programs in high school, serving as president of McKay’s Future Business Leaders of America chapter this year and interning at MAPS Credit Union.

She’d like to own her own inventing business someday and wants to understand the financial side of the work, not just the technology, she said.

Rojas will work as a civil engineering intern for the Oregon Department of Transportation over the summer before starting the electrical engineering program at Oregon State University in the fall. She said her successes in high school reflect her willingness to take on opportunities as they come at her.

“Say yes to new opportunities. Say yes to those crazy projects. Say yes to doing a project over Zoom during a pandemic,” she said, laughing.

Hull said it was clear Rojas was a bright, curious student even as a freshman, when Rojas took Hull’s honors geometry class.

“I’m super excited to see what is next for her and what is down the road. Hopefully she hires me one day,” Hull said.

Correction: This article was updated to correct the name of the orgnization that awarded Rojas’ team’s adaptive cup design. It is the Lemelson-MIT program, not the Lemelson Foundation and MIT.

Contact reporter Rachel Alexander: [email protected] or 503-575-1241.


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Rachel Alexander is Salem Reporter’s managing editor. She joined Salem Reporter when it was founded in 2018 and covers city news, education, nonprofits and a little bit of everything else. She’s been a journalist in Oregon and Washington for a decade. Outside of work, she’s a skater and board member with Salem’s Cherry City Roller Derby and can often be found with her nose buried in a book.