Real-world learning opens doors for high school students

March 11, 2013

From “Real-world learning opens doors for AHS students” — When Algoma High School senior Kyle Holmes enters the school building each day, he opens the door to more than just a path to his high school diploma.

A new focus in the high school’s industrial technology program with an emphasis on STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) principles is creating multiple paths of opportunity for Kyle’s future.

Kyle is not only a student but an employee. He works for Algoma Wulf Tech, a student-run company based at the school that subcontracts with local businesses to create wood and metal products on CNC machines as well as creating design work with the latest manufacturing software and printers.

Kyle works after school producing metal products, mostly for Precision Machines Inc. He earns a paycheck while gaining real-world experience and training, and is also earning credits from his coursework towards a technical degree at Northeast Wisconsin Technical College.

The change in how Algoma High School delivers industrial technology courses has been a positive experience for Kyle.

“I like it better this way. You get to know how it is actually done – the ordering of materials, the programming side, the machining side, everything. It is not bookwork, it is hands-on-work and there is lots of problem solving. You get to learn how to do it and do it,” Kyle said.

Changes in the program began when Algoma High School principal Nick Cochart was hired in 2011. Not even two years later, the department has a new look and feel. The space no longer has worn dark green World War II-era machines cluttering the space but is streamlined with the latest machines and current technologies. Classes such as Woods 1 or Metals 1 do not exist. Courses are project and research-based with a focus on STEM, an interdisciplinary approach that integrates real-world, problem-based learning.

“It took time but now that it is here, it has grown fast,” Cochart said. “We have seen student interest in industrial technology as well as Math and Science go up. Rooms are filled with kids and they are enjoying learning. They are working on much more complex projects and problem solving than in the past.”

During a visit to the school, Kyle demonstrated his real-world, problem-based learning. Kyle needed to figure out how to recreate a metal part from a solid rectangular piece of metal. He went straight to the computer to use the AutoCAD (computer-aided design) program and Mastercam, a computer-aided machining) program to create his plan for the computer numerical control (CNC) machine that would do the drill work on the part.

After swiftly entering drill speeds and marking where he wanted the machine to drill, Kyle headed off to the metal CNC machine. He wore a pair of safety glasses and his typical wardrobe for school. The work was clean, as the drill does it work behind a set of safety doors.

Real-world experience is key to the new approach to teaching industrial technology.

“We are preparing students for having jobs in the workplace,” said Russell Nockerts, a metal shop aide. “We teach all aspects of the business as well as meeting deadlines and producing quality products.”

“Students are are thinking outside the box. They get to use reverse engineering skills – they take an item and work back how it was created so they can reproduce it – and are connecting math to real life,” said Matt Able, Algoma High School technical education teacher. “And they develop ownership. It is being done for a purpose with higher standards and accountability, because it is for someone else and they are representing the school.”

Algoma Wulf Tech takes on a variety of projects, including work for nonprofit and local government agencies. Several students will build Frisbee disc cages needed at a park for the Kewaunee Parks and Rec Department. Parks and Rec purchased the materials and the students will donate the labor and have a lasting hands-on experience for a class project.

Kevin Sperber, a sophomore, completed a cabinetry design for the Algoma Long Term Care Unit’s kitchen remodeling project. He drew the design using AutoCAD. CTI Hospitality is assisting with the project and will create the doors of the cabinets. Students will cut and assemble most of the project, including installing the cabinets at the facility.

Kevin said he enjoys programming and designing using the software programs. He also liked working on a meaningful project.

“When you are working on something like this for the community to make something better rather than just a small project for yourself, you are doing something important,” Kevin said.

Precision Machines Inc., Olson Fabrication and CTI Hospitality are three local companies that have been supportive of the new approach to teaching industrial technology skills at Algoma High School. They provide guidance, encouragement, and vision to the program. Precision Machines, Inc. has even hired several graduates of the high school program.

“They see the benefit of what we are doing here,” Cochart said.

“It is an amazing program that we have been working hard to provide for our students,” Superintendent Ronald Welch said. “We recognize that the hands-on kind of learning is best for lots of kids. As much as it is very expensive and we don’t get support from politicians, we are pushing ahead to make it happen. The school purchased the equipment using its fund balance with the premise that the program would be self-sustaining after a period of time and pay for itself.

The concept of changing the approach to learning in the industrial technology department came from feedback that local companies provided. Business owners shared with the school that students were lacking real world business skills such as working with groups and teams and had no concept about how a business runs, said Able.

Jamie Spitzer, owner and president of Precision Machine Inc. in Algoma, has provided support to the program and is excited about the opportunities for students.

“Having this in the school and having them be ready, willing, and able to give the kids the opportunity is amazing. We are seeing good things … They have seen growth and are adding on more equipment. We have been able to give them jobs to do and they have been doing a very good job. The school is doing something really good for the long haul,” Spitzer said.

Another plus that Spitzer sees for the program is that it is reaching more students.

About 100 students in grades seven through 12 participate in industrial technology courses. The courses at the high school level are beginning to attract more female students. Currently there is about one female student in each class. Able believes the numbers will continue to grow.

To foster an interest in STEM courses, Algoma Schools partnered with NWTC to offer Summer Tech Camps, and will expand the number of Summer Tech Camps offered at the school in the summer of 2013. The Tech Camp attracted students from all over Northeastern Wisconsin.

In addition, Algoma High School students will participate in the NWTC Tech Challenge on April 18. Every Algoma Middle School student will explore Mind Trekkers at the same event, a traveling educational road show from Michigan Tech designed to ignite interest in students to explore education and careers in STEM fields.

“It is touching more than just the manufacturing kids. They are incorporating marketing and developing websites. It is pretty cool ideas and pretty good concepts. It is good for the community and that is the reason we are doing it,” Spitzer said. “It is a positive thing for the school.”

Kyle has seen several doors of opportunity open to him through his participation in the new industrial technology classes. He has a lead on a job after high school graduation at a local manufacturer in Algoma, and he also plans on studying for a Machine Operation degree at NWTC with a plan to take courses while working full time to gain a second degree in the field. In the meantime, he enjoys the real-world, hands-on learning opportunities.


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