The energy of brainstorming and sound of power tools is now familiar to anyone passing Room 104 at Red Bank Catholic High School. RBC added a Pre-Engineering course to its curriculum for the 2012-2013 school year, and as the first semester comes to a close, the students’ evident enthusiasm confirms the program’s success. From wind-powered cars to catapults, students have employed the new principles of physics and math they learned in those classes to design, build and operate.
In 2010, Karen Falco, RBC Vice-Principal, saw an opportunity to integrate more Science, Technology, Engineering and Math-based (“STEM”) curriculum into the school’s course offerings with a Pre-Engineering class. She proposed the idea to Principal Robert Abatemarco, who immediately endorsed the program and approved the new curriculum. Mrs. Falco then approached Angela Wallas, a Physics and Forensics teacher at RBC, and Timothy Lutz, who teaches Calculus and Pre-Calculus with the idea of teaching the class as a team. Both Mr. Lutz and Mrs. Wallas welcomed this unique opportunity.
In preparing to teach the class, Mrs. Wallas realized that the available STEM course material was too basic and would not allow them to accomplish their goals for the class. Mrs. Wallas explained, “We wanted to teach it as a college course so we developed the curriculum ourselves.” They spent the 2011-2012 school year working on the curriculum, deciding to dedicate the first semester to mechanical engineering, a subject taught by Mrs. Wallas, and the second semester to electrical engineering, which would be taught by Mr. Lutz, who has 30 years of private sector electrical engineering experience.
To bring their new concept to fruition, the teaching team needed a dedicated space with lab equipment. Again, with Mr. Abatemarco’s support, Mrs. Mary Russo, Associate Director of Integrated Technology Services, oversaw the transformation of Room 104 into what is now a state-of-the-art Engineering classroom. Working within budget and with an architect’s expertise, Mrs. Russo oversaw the completion of the classroom that now accommodates up to 20 students and features a drilling station and a cutting station. At the beginning of the school year the students divided themselves into small groups, each of which has the use of its own toolbox to complete projects. According to Mrs. Wallas, “the students are now all comfortable with power tools and have gained tremendous confidence using them.”
During the initial phase of the course, the students learned about the different types of engineering disciplines and potential careers associated with them. As Mrs. Falco points out, “engineering can be an intimidating word for a lot of students. This course allows them to see what possibilities there are for them if they decide to pursue a career in engineering, and gives them practical experience as to what they would be learning as engineering students in college.” Course pre-requisites include Physics and Algebra II, and the students need not be in the Honors or AP program to qualify. Mrs. Falco adds “At RBC we work to help students reach their full potential, and it is wonderful to see all types of intelligence on display.”
After learning how to operate the power tools safely, the students began work on a series of projects. “Every project is a competition between the groups,” notes Mrs. Wallas, and with each assigned project the groups are given a task, materials and constraints they must work within. They are required to work through the twelve steps of the engineering process, from brainstorming and design to completion, creating portfolios documenting the entire process.
The students recently completed their final mechanical engineering project for the year, a “Rube Goldberg” machine. The groups were required to come up with a simple task and within size and space constraints use at least 10 simple machines and 10 transfers of energy to complete that task. One group created a replica of a small town with the final goal of lighting the church tower. Another group limited their purchases to Staples products and the final task on their machine was hitting the Staples “Easy” button.
As the second semester begins, the students will be learning electronics and how to build simple circuits. According to Mr. Lutz, the approach will be “teach, build, test.” They will learn the basics of integrated circuits, of computers and how all electronic components work. Mr. Lutz notes that “most students have never been able to take anything apart so they don’t know how it works. We will be opening the box a little to give them an idea.”
The buzz you hear in the classroom is not just the power saws. The students taking the class genuinely enjoy this “hands on” class. Mr. Wallas points out with a smile, “the students beat the teachers to the classroom every day. And it is tough to get them out when the bell rings at the end of the period.”
The students agree. Sophia Shinn was undecided about what she wanted to study in college. She says, “I took a lot of electives my senior year to test different things out. Taking Pre-Engineering was definitely worth all the work. It is my hardest and most rewarding class.” Robert Bauer says “this class is always a surprise. Engineering is what I thought I wanted to do but now I’m sure.” A smiling Mike Colucci paid the teachers the biggest compliment, “I love this class. It feels like it goes by in two minutes.”