Engineering academy encourages creative, real-world thinking

Published 4:11 pm Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Students in Diane Slawter's engineering academy at PHS work to build a paper bridge as part of the day's instant challege. (Contributed)

Students in Diane Slawter’s engineering academy at PHS work to build a paper bridge as part of the day’s instant challege. (Contributed)

By JESSA PEASE / Staff Writer

PELHAM— Students in Pelham High School’s new engineering academy are learning to think outside the box through teamwork, technical sketches and real-world applications.

This is the first year the course has been offered at the school, and Diane Slawter, who previously taught at a science and engineering academy in Texas, is teaching the course.

Currently, she’s giving her students an introduction to engineering design, focusing on the design process.

“Our focus is brainstorming and learning how to not criticize other people, learning how to take in as much as you can and then build off of that, coming up with designs and creating, (as well as) thinking out of the box,” Slawter said.

The class is currently working on sketching, or technical drawing, which will lead them into a program called Inventory where they can create 3-D drawings of parts on the computer.

The class also incorporates writing proposals and the use of an engineering notebook. Slawter said it teaches the students to act like an engineer, picking designs and working through problems.

“I’m real proud of them. They’ve really jumped in there,” she said. “It’s basically taking what we’ve taught in math, science and technology on those little pieces and sticking it all together in one class.”

Gabby Tae, Christian Goecke, Aaron Wilkes and Stephen Daley are all in Slawter’s engineering academy and each plan on pursuing some branch of engineering in college.

“I’m beginning to learn a lot more about engineering in general, and it’s helping me prepare,” said Tae, a senior. “I’m excited for what’s ahead. We’ll get to build model cubes.”

Goeke, also a senior, said his favorite part so far has been the instant challenges Slawter has presented the class with. In teams, students were asked to create the tallest structure they could from spaghetti sticks that would support a marshmallow.

“It’s unbelievable how their first ideas went to something completely different and they just flourished in it,” Slawter said of the spaghetti challenge. “The kids are saying, ‘Can I take mine to the math class and show everybody?’ and it’s just spaghetti and a marshmallow. They are proud of those things.”

The students also used a piece of cardstock and two blocks to create the longest possible bridge they could.

“It’s really solving real-world issues,” Wilkes said. “It’s really taking what we learned here and applying it to something that actually could happen in the real world.”

To prepare for the class, Slawter spent some time in Auburn University’s engineering department over the summer. She said the grad students thought the academy and Slawter’s incorporation of the engineering notebook would be very beneficial to the students once they reached college.

The academy is designed to be taken as a four-year course, starting with the intro class. Next year, students will go on to principles of engineering using mechatronics, forces and structures. They will be building things like robotic arms.

The last two years, students can go into a specialty, such as mechanical, chemical or civil. Students will continue to utilize dual-screened computers in class, and work will begin on a new engineering wing at PHS in April.

“They are very lucky to have this program,” Tae said of the students who will get to participate in the program all four years.