Innovation in Action – A CTF Design Challenge Results in a Novel Product and Increased Demand from N


Wm. E. Hay is a Secondary School in Stettler, Alberta. It has 5 vocational programs (Fabrication, Building Construction, Automotives, Foods and Cosmetology) that are taught by staff who have an Education degree as well as Journeyman status in their chosen trade. The introductory courses utilize small projects to facilitate skill development whereas the Intermediate and senior courses take on real world projects that are identical to the projects that would be encountered if the student(s) choose to work in the trades. A student who completes all of the courses in a particular trade will acquire all of the practical skills and theoretical knowledge required to complete the first year of technical training at a post-secondary institution.

Typically the intermediate and senior students would be in the same class so we follow an apprenticeship model where the senior students are expected to be mentors and role models for the intermediate students. Students also have the option of enrolling in the Registered Apprenticeship Program (RAP) which allows them to work in the trade and earn high school credits at the same time. This is referred to as a dual credit program.

They key to high student retention is PROJECTS. It is common to offer a program that focuses almost exclusively on skill development but unless a student is very motivated, they will not stay engaged and the program suffers attrition at the intermediate and senior levels. It is similar to musicians who work on the technical aspects of their music but never perform a song.

Because our shops are well-equipped, students are capable of delivering projects at a very high level. Their work is often sought out by customers throughout the community. This is very good for the program because the community supports the program. Furthermore, the students, who capable of professional quality work, are in high demand both as employees and, for some of them, future business owners.

The Design Challenge

This project began innocuously in our fabrication class and evolved into something bigger. The primary objective of a welder is to manage heat, so just for fun we had picked up some portable BBQ’s that had been discarded and the students rebuilt them. It became a tradition to cook food occasionally under the guise of “temperature and heat control.” Furthermore, the school occasionally hosts a few special events where hamburgers and hotdogs are cooked for large groups. The welding students typically supplied some of their BBQ’s and assisted with the set up. Eventually, a former student built a large portable grill that he rented to the school. While these grills worked well for hamburgers and hotdogs when the staff had a steak barbeque, we rented “proper grills.”

Renting grills several times a year planted the seed for a potential project. The defining moment came when there was a problem with the “proper grill” and the meal did not go as well as planned.

This led us to our Driving Question: Can we do this better? The question was simple, but has the potential to spawn innovation – creating something new, or significantly improved, of value.

The Objective

Design and create a portable BBQ for the school that could be used to prepare high quality food, for a large crowd, at events. We had the tools, we had the facility and, most importantly, we had the expertise. All we needed was time, money and an appropriate design.​​

Students began to generate “Need to Knows” in response to the Driving Question, such as:

  • How much will it cost in time and money to design and build?

  • How will we fund it?

  • How much would it cost to buy?

  • What type of portable BBQs are already on the market? How much to they cost?

The principal managed to generate some funds, and provided our team with an initial budget of $5,000 - $6,000.

We discovered that in Central Alberta, several businesses have purchased large grills for promotional purposes. Those grills are custom built and start at $25,000 and go on up to $60,000. Could we do it ourselves, at a fraction of the cost?

We generated some initial leads and options. Many of these failed, but rather than giving up, we persisted in pursuing alternatives.

Option 1 - We inquired about purchasing the components needed for a large, portable BBQ from the manufacturer, but the manufacturer(s) came up with a variety of reasons why this would not work. The reality was they had a lot of development costs into their products and they did not want to divulge the inner workings.

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Option 2 – We looked into a commercial grills that would be used in a restaurant. However, we discovered that they can be difficult to source, very expensive and not designed to be portable. Additionally, because these restaurant grills are used indoors, we would still need to design and fabricate a stainless steel cover.

Option 3 – We looked into large portable grills that event organizers use. They are portable and they have stainless steel covers. However, we realized this option wasn’t viable because they are extremely difficult to source and ridiculously expensive.

Option 4 – Purchase commercial grills at an auction. Unfortunately, there are not very many restaurant auctions in central Alberta. If we looked beyond Alberta, we would have to purchase something sight-unseen, from out of province. Plus, the shipping costs negated any cost savings.

Option 5 – Develop our own grill system. This option was ruled out for the following reasons:

  1. We had no experience in this area. Furthermore, the time required to come up with a suitable design would be significant.

  2. We would require access to some specialized equipment.

  3. The material costs to build a prototype and/ or a finished product were significant.

  4. Because the public would be using the grill, we would require approval from the Canadian Gas Association.

​​Option 6 – Tell the customer (the school) that we were unable to deliver a suitable product.

The various scenarios and options kept spinning around and around. We would consider one idea and then reject it. We considered another idea and then decided to revisit the first idea. The design phase went around and around but never gained traction.

Finally, in a collaborative tuning protocol, I shared the dilemma with staff from core classes. An idea was shared and discussed during the protocol that got us thinking in a new direction - Could we mount multiple grills on a trailed bed?

As a side note, I sometimes feel a sense of disconnect in being able to collaborate between CTF and core. But, this was a great example of how sharing ideas with a diverse audience can often lead to powerful and surprising solutions.

We explored this trailer bed idea further in class. We determined that we could purchase individual portable grills and possibly custom-mount them on a trailer. In fact, we already had a trailer frame built for a customer who ran out of money. We plugged the basic dimensions into a CAD program to verify that everything would fit. We reviewed the plan with the customer to ensure it met the requirements. Everything seemed viable. So, we rolled up our sleeves and got to work.

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On the surface, our design might seem straight forward, but most people would be surprised at the number of little details that had to be considered, implemented and then modified throughout the process. Our basic philosophy is that “we have never done this before, and nobody else has either, so we are going to proceed thoughtfully, produce a functional product and then modify and tweak based on user feedback.” Essentially, this project (like most others) was constantly a “work in progress.”


We were able to successfully design a custom, portable, high-quality BBQ for our client to use at various events to feed large crowds. We accomplished this feat at a fraction of the cost of purchasing a comparable product on the market. The four BBQs we used cost $500 each for a total of $2,000. The fabrication program generously donated the trailer frame. The automotive program donated the wheels and the total cost was approximately $2,500. After several groups have used our custom, portable BBQ at events, we have received virtually no negative feedback. We were also approached by two other community groups who wanted us to build a custom grill for them.

The most challenging aspect of this whole project turned out to be collaboration and experimentation. ​​Collaboration requires TIME and a significant degree of humility. With all good intentions, we, as teachers, tend to micro-manage processes in an effort to be results-orientated. What I discovered is that sometimes it’s better to take an agile, flexible and persistent approach. Collaboration ultimately led to our success, which required seeking out input in unsuspecting places. It also required trusting my colleagues, trusting the students and letting go of rigid time lines. All of this can be difficult, but it has the potential to lead to great successes and a lot of learning along the way.

For more information about this project, please feel free to contact:

Dale Brown

Wm. E. Hay Stettler Secondary Campus

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