Local students see what’s possible through STEM program
The bell rings, signaling the end of third period at Crested Butte Community School, but the students in Todd Wasinger’s class don’t seem eager to leave.
They’ve always been told to take an interest in what they’re learning, and now they have. After some prompting, they start to leave the small wooden cubes and sheets of isometric paper that litter the desks and the molten plastic streaming out of the extruder head on a 3-D printer in the back of the room.
“I think the fourth period teachers hate me,” Wasinger says with a smile.
After nine years at the district teaching biology and physical sciences, Wasinger is helping to bring a new engineering program into being at the school and showing his students how to turn their blocks into computer renderings and then back into blocks. It’s not an uncomplicated process, and it will teach them it is possible to turn ideas into reality.
“Eventually the students will come up with an idea—say, an object they want to build. They’ll start drawing it in two dimensions and then three dimensions. They’ll make the different pieces on the computer and then they can manipulate it so they can see how everything would fit together,” Wasinger says. “Basically, the students are taking the same steps an engineer would.”
Where jigsaws and safety goggles were once the mainstays of a shop class, this room represents a new era of ideas about how kids should be educated to take on the challenges of the future. It’s a space where ideas can take a physical form. And the band saw is still in a box under a table in the back of the room.
Now it’s computer renderings made on the same software used by engineers at Intel and Lockheed Martin, histograms, calipers, a three-dimensional scanner and a 3-D printer that take a raw material and turn it into a manufactured product.
This is the new face of industrial arts and it comes with a new name: STEM—the acronym for a force in education that integrates the lessons of Science, Technology, Engineering and Math.
Wasinger hopes the program won’t just introduce kids to what’s possible in engineering; he hopes the students who do in fact pursue formal training in the field will be better prepared than other students when they get there.
Crested Butte Community School principal Stephanie Niemi saw this future coming more than five years ago, although she wasn’t sure exactly how it would look. The school was growing and she and her team at CBCS knew they would reach a point where the size of the student body required more elective classes.
During the 2012-13 school year, more than 40 percent of CBCS juniors and seniors were already enrolled in at least one Advanced Placement (AP) course at the school and they were excelling at the work. Out of a possible grade of five, 91 percent of AP students scored three or higher and 65 percent scored at least a four. And some students were accumulating an entire semester’s-worth of college credits before graduating from high school.
“We knew there would be a tipping point. This was the year,” Niemi says. “We’ve been planning for three years for the addition of an electives teacher to the secondary world.” The question was: What kind of electives teacher would it be?
Then Niemi’s father, a university art history professor, gave her the October 2012 issue of Wired Magazine—the cover story was “This Machine Will Change the World.” It pictured MakerBot CEO Bre Pettis holding his latest 3D printer.
Niemi knew how the school’s new electives would look.
In researching ways she could bring a STEM-type program to the school, Niemi came across Project Lead The Way (PLTW), a widely known and respected organization that provides STEM curricula for students in elementary grades to graduating seniors looking for college credit. “It’s recognized as one of premiere STEM curricula,” Wasinger says. The program has corporate partners like John Deere and Toyota that give preference to applicants with PLTW training.
And PLTW came with a broad professional development network that could train teachers to use engineering software and robotics and then teach them how to engage students with the new material.
Engagement, as it turned out, wasn’t a problem. As soon as the basic courses—Introduction to Engineering Design and Automation and Robotics—were offered to the 300 or so middle and high school students, 101 of them immediately signed up.
The program’s potential has also attracted attention from more than just the students, getting off the ground with a tremendous amount of community support. Locally, the program received an anonymous individual donation of $20,000, and the Parent Teacher Association helped buy 24 new computers for the program. Then the Crested Butte Rotary Club got wind of what was going on at the school and made its own offer to help.
“Rotary invited us to give a presentation about why we’d like a 3D printer and they funded it and it’s now in the classroom,” Wasinger says. “It’s a really exciting time at the school.”
With all of the pieces falling into place, the sky is the limit for STEM at CBCS. Looking to the future of the program, Niemi knows the push for more funding and new programs can’t stop. This year’s sophomore Principles of Engineering students are starting down a path that will be hard to walk away from. Just the robots being programmed by students next semester run almost $1,000 each.
“These kids need to keep going. But we have to find some funds first,” Niemi says. “This is not an inexpensive venture, I assure you.”
Inside the classroom, the future is much more tangible, as students sit with rapt attention, focusing on the task at hand. Sometimes Wasinger, or Waz as the students call him, plays music from a stereo in a cabinet in the front of the room.
In place of the band saw in Waz’s shop, a MakerBot Replicator sits on a table. It’s a machine similar to the one Niemi saw on the cover of Wired and for now, it’s only producing designs that come on an SD card. A nut and bolt that thread together perfectly. A length of chain. A simple figurine and a bracelet.
With commands from a line of code, the cartridge pulls a thin thread of polylactic acid, a biodegradable plastic polymer, from a spool and lays it down, molten layer upon hardened layer, forming any shape you can imagine.
“If some little plastic thing of yours breaks, you could easily download the file and print out a new one,” sophomore student Toby Martineau says. “So I can actually see it extending the life of things a lot longer if you can just print new parts for something.”
Watching the machine work, it’s clear that the possibilities are endless. The machine has the potential to make the intricate parts of a prosthesis or a prototype of the next big thing. All the printer needs is a little direction. That’s where the students come in.
“We can’t just move from one page to the next in a textbook anymore. We need some of these kids to resolve some of these issues in our world,” Niemi says. “We may get some engineers out of this, but who knows? What matters is that kids are engaged.”