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Engineering a future: Donation helps upgrade Oshkosh classes

Gary Hammen (center) lends a hand to Quentan Miller, Nolan Kephart, Zach Knoll and Brian Elmer as they build a solar and wind generator using the Vex Robotics kits that Oshkosh North bought and received through a $10,000 grant for the Principles of Engineering class. (AP photos by Joe Sienkiewicz/The Oshkosh Northwestern)

By Jessica Opoein
Oshkosh Northwestern

OSHKOSH (AP) — Small clusters of students gathered around modeling kits in the Principles of Engineering class at Oshkosh North High School. Some fiddled with knobs to regulate voltage, some stripped wires and some searched for new propeller blades. Their mission was to power a city — or at least, a model of one — with alternative energy.

Luke Rothenbach and Cameron Buelow thought they would have more success with this project than with their last one, which required them to build and power a car with the modeling kits. A few minutes before the bell rang to dismiss the class, Nolan Kephart threw his hands in the air from a nearby table, shouting “Victory!” as his team brought power to its imaginary city.

The class is part of the Pathway to Engineering curriculum designed by Project Lead the Way, a national program that provides middle and high schools with science, technology, engineering and math courses.

Both North and West high schools in Oshkosh have offered several PLTW classes since 2007: Introduction to Engineering Design, Principles of Engineering, Computer Integrated Manufacturing and Digital Electronics.

Several of the PLTW courses use the modeling kits the North students used to power their mini-cities. In PLTW’s early years, the program used kits from a German company called Fischertechnik. However, the company had difficulty meeting turnaround times as the popular program grew to be used in more than 5,000 locations in the United States. About two years ago, PLTW transitioned to an American company, VEX Robotics. The Oshkosh middle schools that teach PLTW’s Gateway to Technology courses use VEX kits, as do local robotics clubs.

Replacing the high schools’ Fischertechnik kits with VEX kits is not inexpensive, but both high schools received $10,000 worth of kits from PLTW, through a donation from Bemis Co. Inc. Each school plans to buy six new VEX Robotics kits to bring their materials up to date with the national program.

Cameron Buelow (left) and Luke Rothenbach apply voltage to their project as they use the Vex Robotics kits.

Chris Arps, technology and engineering department chairman at West, said the upgraded VEX kits will be more realistic than the Fischertechnik kits. Arps said students who took PLTW classes in middle school or are involved in robotics clubs also will have an easier time transitioning if the kits are consistent at every level.

Gary Hammen, technology and engineering teacher at North, said the new kits also are more durable.

The kits help students connect principles learned in upper-level math, science and engineering classes with real-world concepts, Arps said. For example, students in Principles of Engineering use the kits to create a machine that sorts marbles of different materials and colors. The process mimics a sorter for recyclable materials.

“The industry is recognizing the value of this curriculum and the preparation it provides for students, and we certainly recognize it, too,” Salter said.

In Wisconsin, a little more than 300 schools use PLTW curriculum, Salter said. The program is designed to help address the skills gap in the workforce by bolstering students’ knowledge in science, technology, engineering and math.

It’s not all equations and seriousness in the PLTW classes at North and West.

In North’s Principles of Engineering class, students recently made root beer to determine heat loss calculations. In the Introduction to Engineering Design class, students created puzzle cubes and challenged one another in a heated “Puzzle Off.” Hammen said he hopes other students will see engineering students involved in fun activities, and develop an interest in the classes and the material they teach.

While the curriculum is challenging, both Hammen and Arps said it’s valuable for any student interested in pursuing a high-tech career.

“It teaches 21st century skills,” Arps said. “It incorporates very well how math and science and technology are integrated together, as one. It takes theory and it applies hands-on applications to every aspect that we study.”

While technology departments primarily focused on vocational skills in the past, the inclusion of engineering classes has helped the department to evolve, Arps said.

“They really go hand in hand, I mean engineers have to work with welders and machinists and vice versa,” Arps said. “It really is an interrelated type of activity.”

The department has struggled to reach its enrollment goals in some cases, and this year North didn’t have enough students to run its Digital Electronics course. Arps said their primary goal is to attract more students, especially high academic achievers who likely will take advanced courses. Arps and Hammen, along with students in Hammen’s Principles of Engineering class, said most of the PLTW curriculum correlates well with other advanced math and science courses, such as physics, trigonometry and calculus.

It also helps prepare students for college, said Steve Salter, affiliate director of Project Lead the Way-Wisconsin. At the Milwaukee School of Engineering, which recruits students who have taken PLTW courses in high school, Salter said PLTW students are “measurably more successful” than their peers who didn’t take PLTW classes. Salter said PLTW students generally are more competitive for college admissions, and once they get to college, their academic performance typically is a grade level higher than that of their peers. Their graduation rates also generally are a few percentage points higher than their non-PLTW peers.

Of those who graduated with a bachelor’s degree from MSOE in 2011, 100 percent of former PLTW students found full-time jobs in their specialty within six months of graduating, Salter said, adding that their starting salaries were also better than their non-PLTW peers.

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