Applied tech pulls students out of their Facebooks

       In a time of increasing computerization for engineers, simple geography still matters.

Applying technology... At Holmes Middle School, teacher Mike Kreidel tries out a magnetic levitation vehicle with seventh-graders Wyatt Sedlacek (left) and Ian Struckel.
Westside Pioneer photo

       In that regard, West Middle School has got a slight edge on Holmes. As part of the remodel last year that created West Elementary in the same building, West Middle's Gateway to Technology (GTT) curriculum got moved to a classroom next to what used to be the woodshop. This allows GTT students designing projects to go right next door for the tools and supplies to build them, which aids the concept of applied technology, according to instructor Mike Wheeler.
       Meanwhile, at Holmes, Gregory Bohn's wood shop (which includes a unit for making CO2 dragsters) is in the same building, but at the opposite end of the hall from Mike Kreidel's GTT room. “That's what we eventually want to do with GTT,” said Kreidel, “to make things in the shop. The floor space is there, but we need cabling and power.”
       West's favorable proximity still doesn't quite match the model for new schools in the district, explained Teina McConnell, District 11's director of career and technical education. Jenkins, one of the newer middle schools, was built with a large space for computers on one side and a fabrication area on the other. Between them is a half-wall with a full window above it, allowing the teacher to monitor both areas. “We really don't have woodshops anymore,” she said. “We have pre-engineering.”
       As feeders to Coronado High School, both Westside middle schools offer GTT, starting in sixth grade, with increasing complexity which can inspire students to move up to the high school's four-year Project Lead the Way (PLTW) courses. From there, according to McConnell, about 47 percent of PLTW students go into technical fields. District 11 offers seven GTT programs in all, she said, and each is full yearly.
       It's not as if Holmes students don't make things. It's just that space is tight. On a recent day in Kreidel's seventh-grade class, students were looking for spots to shave their hover-car racers (magnets levitate them and a motor propels them down a track). Kreidel kept having to shoo them away from an area he had reserved for other work.
       On the flip side, Wheeler's computer-side classroom gets used a lot for building things too. During a recent visit, students were working at tables at one end of the room filled with framed, miniature houses that had been designed with a computer program.
       Despite the lack of perfect settings, both teachers show enthusiasm for what they teach. Wheeler, who also offers after-school clubs for Lego construction and a soap-box derby car, believes that applied technology counters a modern world in which kids have less exposure to making things with their hands. “Administrators are concerned about low test scores,” said the teacher, who'd worked 17 years as an industrial engineer before becoming a math teacher and then West's GTT instructor two years ago. “But I say they can't hold a hammer right. They know more about Facebook than a soap-box derby.”

Applying technology... At West Middle School, teacher Mike Wheeler works with Mariah Jones (left) and Sarah Garcia on a building structure. In background, students design plans on computers.
Westside Pioneer photo

       Kreidel has been with GTT at Holmes since a year after it started in 2001. Like Wheeler, he likes it when students are involved in construction aspects. “I don't want them being on the computer every single day,” he said.
       One incentive Kreidel offers, to stimulate effort and creativity, is competition. And for the magnetic-levitation vehicle, the competition is himself. He has a car he made with the same materials, and the students try to make cars that will beat his. So far, over the years, Kreidel said, he's only been beaten once. Curious how the student did it, he tried to reverse-engineer the car, but so far has been unable to do so, he admitted with cheerful frustration.
       Other GTT projects, supported by computer design work, can include bridges from balsa wood, rockets using soda pop bottles and CO2 cartridges, robotics (remote-controlled operating devices ranging from cranes to Mars rovers), circuit boards and Rube Goldberg machines (in which parts of a machine successively affect each other).
       What can prove educational is when students build a project they've designed and then it doesn't work right. Doing the job with precision is part of learning to be engineers, and such failures can drive that point home. Wheeler said he will ask his students, “Why do something lousy when you can build something great?”
       Thinking in a similar vein, Kreidel at times employs humor, joshing with the student as if the mistake had been on a major corporate project, “I joke, 'There goes another $13 million,'” he said.

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