STEM initiatives at two Greenup Co. middle schools excite students about "building blocks" for careers; some problems aren't answered in textbooks, must be found in experiments

The Independent, Ashland, Aug. 29, 2016

Using science to make things

WURTLAND - It is difficult to spend more than a few minutes in the STEM lab at Wurtland Middle School without the temptation to call Scotty in the transporter room and request beam-up coordinates.

Because with the expanse of flat screens in front of you and the electronic beeping and chirping of the 3-D printer in the background, it is easy to believe the science-fiction world of the space opera has come to life in this semi-rural school building in Greenup County.

It’s a new lab with state-of-the-art technology, which by itself gets students excited, but the real excitement is what they do with the machines and gadgets.

STEM stands for science, technology, engineering and mathematics, the academic building blocks for the economy and careers of the 21st century.

Greenup invested in a STEM program at Wurtland and McKell middle schools to introduce students to some potential careers by designing and making prototype products.

For some of them, they will use nifty devices like the brand-new 3D printer; others they will make with cardboard, tape and other old-school materials.

Designing and making things requires them to think through and solve problems.

“There’s not a textbook answer to some of these problems,” said Miruka Williams, their teacher.

For instance, after coaching them through the basics of engineering drawings, Williams sent students to their computers to design coffee cups using engineering software.

What sounds like a simple task isn’t so simple. The program provided a virtual cylinder and a ring; the challenge was to hollow out the cylinder, rotate the ring, truncate it and affix it to the cylinder.

The next step was to further refine the design to make the cup ergonomically pleasing, well balanced, comfortable to hold and to sip from and visually attractive.

The previous week they had dabbled in medical appliance design using more primitive tools and materials to make mockups of foot braces for cerebral palsy patients.

The ankle-foot orthoses, as they are called, were built from corrugated cardboard, pipe cleaners, duct tape and rubber bands, among other materials.

The appliances didn’t look like much, but they were the product of serious class research into the mobility issues cerebral palsy patients face, according to Williams.

Williams spent time over the summer getting certified to teach the STEM material, which is activity and project based. Students don’t spend much time with textbooks because almost all the classwork is either computer based or hands-on activities.

WMS students — sixth- through eighth-graders — will learn by following the same path as real engineers and scientists: define problems, generate concepts, design solutions, build and test, evaluate and finally present solutions.

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