YouTube, Texas, And The Passion For Learning: A Valley Senior's Path Toward Accomplishing His Goals By Aaron YOUNG • WDMCS SCHOOL/COMMUNITY RELATIONS • YOUNGA@WDMCS.ORG

For as long as he can remember, Valley High School senior Levi Janssen pursued ideas and creations as a fundamental necessity of the human experience. He thirsts for that passion of never-ending learning and the growth that follows.

It began as art throughout Janssen's elementary years, drawing multiple times a day like it was routine. Dinosaurs. Creatures. Anything that popped into his imagination, he put it on paper. Yet that wasn't enough. He didn't feel satisfied.

In junior high, Janssen became fascinated with computer science. He taught himself how to code, designing websites and making video games. As time went on, though, he felt limitations similar to his drawings.

Janssen recalled asking himself: "How do I make something physical? How do I make something have some real functionality?"

"At some point, I came to the realization that these machines — just any real thing in the world that works — they're all just a bunch of separate, smaller devices that have been assembled into a bigger device to have some functionality," he said.

"I was hooked, and realized that just understanding some simple mechanisms, simple circuits, and stuff like that, you could create new devices and invent new things."

Fast-forward to today. You'll meet a National Merit Scholar ready to attend the University of Texas at Dallas majoring in electrical engineering. A YouTuber with nearly 16,000 subscribers. An 18-year-old who begins an internship with a Texas-based industrial technology company before even receiving his high school diploma later this month.

And yes, we're still talking about one person.

But First, Get To Know Levi

Valley High School senior Levi Janssen works on his scholar project on Tuesday, May 4, 2021, in the high school's manufacturing lab with engineering technology teacher David Schubert.

Janssen is like any other teenager. He enjoys spending time with friends, being outdoors, biking, running, and playing with dogs. But when he's not doing those things, you'd likely find Janssen working on projects and experiments at home or in Valley's manufacturing lab.

In his bedroom, Janssen has a six-foot whiteboard and an eight-foot workbench that includes all of his electronics equipment and a 3-D printer. He also uses his dad's shop in the garage where more tools are available.

"When you talk to him and when he’s brainstorming things, there’s no limit on what he thinks is possible," Adam Janssen, Levi's father, said of his son. "Pick any kind of concept, and he'll say, 'Yeah, but that’s what we do or know today. There’s so much potential.' He’s self-taught himself so much that I think when he gets in an environment where he's surrounded by people who think the way he does, I think things will just expand exponentially for him."

His mother, Shahna Janssen — who works for West Des Moines Community Schools (WDMCS) as the Community Education director, knew Levi had a promising future ahead ever since he was a little boy.

"We've kind of prepared ourselves that it would likely take him away from us and that it probably wasn't in Iowa, just given where his interests were," she said. "He's been very authentic to who he is and someone who at such a young age really knows who he is and where he's going."

An example is how Janssen contemplated if Valley’s honors program was the right fit for him. Instead, he opted to do a scholars project for engineering technology.

"He was a kid that seemed like he should be in the honors program. He knew that as a freshman, and he chose the pathway that was the best for him," Shahna Janssen explained. "At Valley, there are lots of pathways for kids. He was pretty clear about what would not get him to his end goal and what would, and stuck with it all the way through."

Top left: Levi Janssen poses for a photo with his mother, Shahna, and father, Adam, following his sixth grade graduation from Fairmeadows Elementary in 2015. Bottom left: Levi Janssen is sworn in as "mayor" of BizTown by Fairmeadows Principal Brandon Pierce during the 2014-15 academic year. Right photo: Levi Janssen poses for a senior portrait.

Janssen attended Fairmeadows Elementary and Stilwell Junior High. While at Stilwell, he was one of the first students part of the Project-Based Learning Network, formerly known as New Tech Network. In 2015, WDMCS became the first Iowa school district to offer project-based schools, where students learned in groups through real-world projects and were assigned a personal digital device.

He credits the program for helping enhance his communication and presentation skills.

"It gave me a lot of the soft skills that are invaluable. Really the idea to convey ideas: being able to express those ideas in understandable manners," Janssen said. "It gave me uniquely an opportunity to really hone those skills, probably even more so than other people in that program. I'm an introvert, but I really enjoy public speaking. You might be able to say that, without project-based learning, I wouldn't have ended up doing YouTube and working on projects like that. I cannot imagine a version of me that doesn't enjoy public speaking and communication.

"But I did not have the foresight to see that YouTube would contribute to the end goal."

YouTube's Role In 'Unlocking The Magic'

When Janssen tackles experiments, he prides himself on intrinsic motivation. It feels like magic when an idea comes together as a physical object.

"That's like the mountaintop experience in my life. That's what I'm trying to pursue, more of unlocking the magic," he said. "It brings me more joy than anything else I've worked on or made."

Janssen's YouTube channel started as a resource for consistent documentation of his projects. Filming his work also allowed Janssen to do so in a creative and engaging way.

"If I were to compare myself to other people, I'm barely a drop in the bucket, which is to be expected with everything on the Internet," he said. "It feels good to be able to help people understand these things and to entertain people, but at the end of the day, what I'm really wanting to do is entertain myself and satisfy my own need to learn.

The mountaintop experience certainly comes a lot more from 'I made this thing and it actually works' than 'I made this video and people are actually watching it.'"

He posted his first video in May 2019: a six-and-a-half minute tutorial serving as part one of a series on how to build a custom 3-D printer. While these early videos have smaller view counts compared to his more recent projects, Janssen realized he wasn’t alone in this endeavor or his thinking.

"There's a bunch of people who are actually interested in the same stuff I'm interested in, which is bizarre because I very rarely meet anyone who has my exact same mindset of 'I've got to learn everything' and 'I’ve got to make everything.' That's very unique," he said. "And there's apparently a ton of those people and they're finding me and supportive and want to see more. That’s extreme motivation to continue doing it and working on it at a faster pace than I probably would be otherwise."

Since then, Janssen's posted 42 videos and has 15,700 subscribers for his channel. He now makes money off his videos thanks to the assistance of Patreon sponsorships. His most-watched video, at roughly 377,000 views, is a 9-minute explainer of his 3-D-printed cycloidal actuator — an essential component that enables movements in machines.

Watch: Janssen's 3-d Printed Cycloidal actuator video

All Signs Point To Texas

YouTube is how Zac Staples was first introduced to Janssen.

Staples is founder and CEO of Fathom5, an Austin, Texas-based industrial technology company that delivers ecologically mindful and security-first solutions to bring about Industry 4.0 (or the Fourth Industrial Revolution), which is the idea of merging manufacturing and information systems.

"Industry 4.0 is really about taking a smart system and putting them in places that make a positive difference for the planet and for the safety and reliability of water, food, and electrical power systems," Staples said.

Staples explained how Fathom5 recently received 25 patents for advanced gear designs. He was searching YouTube for examples of non-traditional gear motion when he came across Janssen's YouTube channel.

"We prefer finishers over starters and makers over talkers. I loved that Levi was making things and not just talking about them, and in all of his videos he finished and showed you the finished project as opposed to getting halfway into it and moving on to the next thing," Staples said. "And then I found out he had a Patreon channel, and I'm like, 'Well shoot, I'll give $10 or $15 to a kid who’s out there doing cool stuff and putting real things in the world.'"

The pair exchanged messages, and Staples asked Janssen if he'd be interested in an internship at Fathom5. With Janssen set to attend UTD in the fall, about three hours from Austin, the opportunity couldn’t have come at a better moment.

"It's been a very small world that way, and for whatever reason, all signs point to Texas," Shahna Janssen said.

'The Only Intern I’ve Ever Found On YouTube'

As part of his internship, Staples said Janssen will work with a team of engineers — including a lead design engineer with previous experience at SpaceX, an aerospace manufacturer and space transportation services company founded by billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk.

"He's going to really understand how you take an idea of something that you want to make and do even more complicated, thorough analyses of whether it will work under load," Staples explained. "He’s going to be right there with us on the journey this summer, going from the inventor's idea to how you turn it into a commercial product. He's going to learn how to do some of the more technical skills like finite element analysis and motion-based dynamic analysis.

"We're going to be pushing his skills a little bit, but he’s a contributor. I'm looking forward to him owning a couple pieces of this with us this summer and walking it forward.

"Levi is far and away the youngest, most talented, and the only intern I’ve ever found on YouTube."

The internship begins soon. Very soon — as in mid-May — when the Janssens make the 13-hour trip from West Des Moines to Austin.

"He starts the internship on May 17," Shahna Janssen said. "So we had to rethink graduation. We had to rethink all these things that are the typical senior wrap-up and then that summer preparing for college. But we think it’s all worth it.

"The thing that, as a parent, what concerns me the most is he’s going from being a high school student to a full-fledged adult overnight. I feel much better about college, because college has so many built-in safety nets and support systems for young people who are leaving home. He's going to experience the real world before he hits college."

Earlier this year, the Janssens visited Staples and the Fathom5 crew in person. The team of designers showed Janssen a proof of concept for the project he’d help work on during the summer, with its inspiration coming from one of his YouTube videos.

"'You're on our playlist,'" Shahna Janssen remembers one of the designers saying.

Staples noted how the fact the Janssens were willing to check out Fathom5 and be supportive makes all the difference in the end.

"We're all the product of our friends and our families that influence our opinion and provide us with that first foot on the ladder," he explained. "It was just a real pleasure to meet Levi and his family who enabled him to even consider taking an internship halfway across the country."

Looking Back At His WDMCS Journey

Don't fret. Janssen plans to join his 663 classmates for Valley’s commencement ceremony set for noon Sunday, May 30, at Valley Stadium. But the future is coming fast and furious for this young adult.

Is he nervous?

"I don’t know," Janssen said. "Part of me thinks that I should be nervous, and that maybe I'm not nervous because I just haven't really thought about it, so maybe that’s the case? Where'd the time go? It was not long ago when this opportunity was three months away — that felt like a week ago that this opportunity was three months away. And now it's basically here."

Yet he's still boasting his witty sense of humor.

"I don't know if you heard, but Texas is warm," Janssen quipped. "The place I'm going to be living, there's bike trails that go through it, it's right next to a state park, and it's just a beautiful, picturesque neighborhood. That alone is something to be really excited for."

The Janssens are especially thankful for the education WDMCS offers their children and all PK-12 learners.

"I'm grateful for the experiences he's had here in West Des Moines Community Schools," Shahna Janssen said. "I think he's had a wealth of opportunities and exposure from the project-based learning to the AP classes to talented teachers and people who invested in him and encouraged and supported him.

"I think he's well-positioned to step into his future and figure out what's next."

And when he looks back at his WDMCS educational journey, he offers this advice for future students:

"Don't just figure out what you want, but try things," Janssen said. "Try different things and be open to learning weird things — just anything even inside and outside of school. Pursue everything so that you can find that one thing or that handful of things that really interest you to try and determine what your angle is earlier so that you can set your path in front of you to be able to reach that goal more efficiently.

"Make efforts to try and find what that thing is — what your thing is — because it’s just going to be more rewarding in the end."
Valley High School senior Levi Janssen poses for a photo on campus at the University of Texas at Dallas. Janssen, a National Merit Scholar, will attend UTD in the fall and will major in electrical engineering.

Learn more about the West Des Moines Community Schools online at wdmcs.org.

Created By
Aaron Young