IR students climb STEM to architecture and engineering

Date Published: 
May 30, 2014

Coastal Point • R. Chris Clark: Joseph Ciriello presents a real toy car and the 3D computer model at Indian River's STEM class.Coastal Point • R. Chris Clark: Joseph Ciriello presents a real toy car and the 3D computer model at Indian River's STEM class.Many of today’s K-12 students are preparing for jobs that don’t even exist yet. As technology catapults forward, Indian River High School is pulling the lever with a pre-engineering pathway for STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics).

Only two years old, the four-year STEM pathway is aimed at preparing students for a new level of technology and design in their college and careers.

“I like creating things,” said freshman Joseph Ciriello, who joined STEM after being inspired by a family friend who works in mechanical engineering. In the design-heavy course Introduction to Engineering Design, he’s ready to start building, but the students are first learning the computer programs that will propel them to the next step.

They did a reverse-engineering project, starting with the finished product and ending with a design. Students dismantle an object — such as a pen — sketch every component, measure every piece and enter each dimension into the computer to produce an exact 3-D drawing. That includes the tightness of each spring, thickness of each cap and angle of each slope.

“They get to see how an object works and how could it be improved,” said teacher Allen Timmons. It also gives them a sense of “how things fit together … an idea of how to get started” when they eventually build their own items.

Their designs could come to life with IR’s 3-D printer, which prints tiny layers of plastic, one atop another, to form an exact replica of a tangible item (versus a 2-D printer, which prints a two-dimensional image).

Ninth-graders saw the printer in action firsthand with challenge involving a puzzle cube, which they had to design completely. Usually made of wood, the solid cube is made of five interlocking pieces, and they were allowed to print one piece.

The cube must lock together when assembled but be simple enough for children to solve.

“It’s hard to make an easy puzzle,” said Ciriello. “You have to try to think the way they would.”

But it was his favorite project, he said, since “it was physical … something that we got to build.”

Now, they’re on the computer regularly.

Before the computer design even began, students spent months working mostly on paper. They sketched manufactured items, such as phones or cups, focusing on line, shadow and shape. “You can tell it got better,” said ninth-grader Sara Saylor, flipping through old sketches.

Saylor plans to translate STEM to a biomedical career, perhaps building artificial limbs.

“This is my way to help people,” said Saylor, who interested in medicine, but not eager to see blood.

What was the biggest surprise for her? “I’m the only girl!” she said. But that’s OK, because she enjoys the course. “It is [awesome]. I like it a lot,” Saylor said.

“It’s just something different. I felt I would like engineering,” said sophomore Gunnar Moldrik, who took a construction class but wanted take it to next step.

“It’s a great pathway,” he said, working on the Inventor computer software. “This is teaching me dimension.”

STEM isn’t just computers, though. Kids are learning to think differently and problem-solve.

“A plus B doesn’t always equal C,” Timmons said when the program began in 2012. Students must be open-minded and try different solutions. “They’re going to have to think outside the box.”

That matters, whether they’re building a simple paper bridge or whole new invention.

“You’re exploring it with them. You’re a facilitator,” said teacher John Milspaw. “You want to let them figure it out. It can be frustrating” not to have one correct answer. “But it’s better when they figure it out on their own.”

The original STEM students are finishing their second year in the program, now learning with Milspaw in Principles of Engineering for computer programing and robotics.

Just programming each sensor can be tricky. But Milspaw said “the big wow” comes when the students actually build working robots. Kids might own a remote-control car, but they’ve probably never created a machine with a claw that picks things up. Until now.

“I let ’em explore,” said Milspaw, noting that he enjoys project-based learning. “It’s definitely a lot of fun.”

STEM was introduced as a Selbyville Middle School exploratory program, allowing students to dip their toes into the fields for one marking period. It also created a feeder program for Indian River High School.

IRHS staff wanted to create a real impact, so they asked local professionals where the classes should lead, based on job opportunity and community needs. So architecture and civil engineering is the “best fit” for Year Three, Timmons said.

The senior capstone project will have students creating and presenting a new product to a board of engineers. They’ll do the research, build a prototype and test it. Nationwide, some students have even earned patents for their senior capstone projects.

They can also get college credit during high school. Every spring, students submit their project notebook and take a national test. If they pass, they could get credit for a full college course, one course per year. (Last year, only a few students didn’t get credit, Timmons said.) It’s an advanced program.

“My sister is in college for engineering and doing same stuff we are,” Saylor said.

IRHS is part of a national STEM program, Project Lead the Way. That means classrooms across the country are learning the same curriculum. So if a student moved to New England, she could continue learning almost at the same place and still submit her notebook for credit.

Federal funding paid for IR’s program and training, though Race to the Top.

IRSD Superintendent Susan Bunting said the decision to begin STEM began with today’s elementary students.

“So many of the jobs that they will be able to — I hope — qualify for when they graduate have not yet been invented. That is staggering to me, that we really have to up the ante, that our students have to be ready for what comes next.”