05/02/08 — CBA High School engineering school students learn about problem-solving and possibilities

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CBA High School engineering school students learn about problem-solving and possibilities

By Phyllis Moore
Published in News on May 2, 2008 1:46 PM

A year ago, Jarrod James had no idea what engineering was, much less an interest in pursuing it as a career.

He was an eighth-grader at Norwayne Middle School then. Now, he is a freshman at Charles B. Aycock High School heavily involved in athletics -- football, baseball, track and field.

Family encouraged him to consider taking advantage of Aycock's newest school-within-a-school concept launched in the fall -- The Academy of Engineering Technologies.

After a semester in academy director Steven Thorne's class, he is considering an engineering major when he goes on to college.

"The hands-on stuff really interests me," he said. "Plus we do a lot of peer-to-peer learning."

Thorne typically gives an introduction to the day's plan, then turns his students loose to work together.

"We kind of understand each other better," Jarrod says. "Mr. Thorne puts it in the technical terms. Then we talk among ourselves, so it's not as intimidating if you don't know something."

The latest class project features puzzle cubes.

"You take wooden cubes, 27 of them, and actually try to make a puzzle out of them, see which pieces go with which," said Jarrod. "It's just solving problems. The whole class is that."

Beyond putting together a puzzle, there are certain constraints that have to be met, their instructor said.

"They have to figure out the best way, the best pattern to make the puzzle go together. Then they draw that into 3-D software," Thorne said. "It prepares them to go into the engineering field, and for the college-bound kid."

"It kind of helps you in life, too -- how to solve problems, helps you think better," Jarrod said.

Prior to enrolling in the four-year curriculum program, he described himself as a "kind of laid back" student.

"Before, I never thought I would be able to create something like this," he said. "But then after breaking it down, taking my time with it, just basically putting it together, you see what you're really able to do. Now, it's like I can do anything."

The program has been a good choice for the athlete, providing a mental workout.

"Especially when I bring home my progress reports," he said, admitting to enjoying making his family proud. "Engineering is one of the biggest markets, a whole lot of in-depth study. ... I think a whole lot more outside the box now."

Lauren Larison and Zachary Huffman, also freshmen, are currently in Thorne's Introduction to Engineering Design class.

Being one of the few young women in the program, Lauren said it wasn't as overwhelming as she anticipated.

"I was in TSA (a technology student club) last year and we did projects like this," she said. "This involved a whole lot of computers, so I learn a lot about the actual design of things."

Although her future plans don't include becoming an engineer -- opting to work either as a physical therapist or in ministry, Lauren said she has enjoyed the program.

"As a ninth-grader, you don't get many options ... so this is a fun elective," she said.

English is more her strength, she says, but she has seen improvements in her math.

"We do a lot of geometry type things," Thorne said. "So the class is good for someone like her. Because of the problem solving ... it's more of a fun way to learn the math."

Zachary is just the opposite, he says, so for him the engineering program "is my element."

He has been interested in the field for a long time, initially considering attending the district's School of Engineering until he learned there would be a similar program offered at the high school near his home.

"It's amazing," he says of the program. "It was a big eye opener because you get to learn so many things -- problem solving, technology, real world stuff."

He plans to continue on this path, studying engineering at N.C. State University and finding a job in the field. His preference, he said, would be mechanical engineering, working in the automotive industry.

Despite his confidence, he admits to uncertainties coming into the classroom for the first time.

"All of us when we first came here, thought, 'What are we doing? Why are we here?'" he said. "But now as the project goes on, if you start doing it, it just gets simpler and simpler."

"I'm kind of glad the counselor asked me to take it," agreed Lauren. "I stuck through it, and there were more and more fun projects, which coincides with the geometry I'm taking. I've improved a lot."

The teacher has had a lot to do with it, the students said.

"Thorne will talk no more than 20 minutes," Lauren said. Then students work with and learn from one another.

"A lot of times they're scared to ask questions from the teacher but if it's their friends, it's more casual," she said.

The open environment is purposeful, Thorne said.

"I try to do more peer mentoring rather than have it all come from the teacher," he said. "They have to work on concepts on their own, in groups. ... It teaches them to do things for themselves."

What also makes the Aycock program unique is its curriculum, provided by Project Lead The Way. The non-profit organization was started by a New York high school technology teacher concerned about the engineering shortage and wanted to make it more appealing to youth.

Many schools across the country have already introduced it, Thorne said. Other districts in the state have visited Aycock to look at the program. He also hopes it may eventually be added in other local high schools.

In the meantime, his main goal is to boost interest and enrollment, particularly among females and minorities.

"It's just a great curriculum," he said. "I worked in the field before I started teaching, in industry. I think there's lots of kids that have an interest."