Inside a Havelock Middle School classroom, student Katie Murphy soldered components on a circuit board, Christian Martin calculated the energy from propeller blade angles and Kylie Rutyna used a computer numerical control program to carve out a logo on a tile with a robot-like turning center.
This is no ordinary classroom. It’s the school’s Science, Technology, Engineering and Math lab designed to get students interested in technological careers.
Emphasis on what educators call STEM is growing in area schools with the realization that the number of technical jobs is growing.
"Right now with our workforce and our skills gaps in this area, and in the country for that matter, it’s very important for students to see how the science and the math work together with the engineering and the technology to create and make a product, to make a result," said Marlena Bleau, the STEM lab teacher at Havelock Middle. "It’s applying the concepts. They can sit in math class all day, but until they understand how that science works with that math to get a result for something that they are trying to figure out, it’s not relevant until they do that."
Bleau has taught for nine years, seven in a conventional classroom and the last two in the STEM lab, and she sees a difference in the students.
"They are much more engaged. They are much more active in their learning. They are investigating," she said. "They are making mistakes and figuring out here’s my mistake and here’s the solution to my problem. Children learn by actually doing and trying things."
Stations around the class focus on specific disciplines, such as computer-aided design, plastics and polymers, electricity, rocket science, flight simulators and others.
Bleau noted students can create airplane parts for old aircraft and use such techniques as injection molding that are used in the real world today.
And the children are soaking it up, right through their protective safety glasses.
"It’s very high tech and you get to learn about different things in the world like geothermal and how to program stuff like robots and engineering bridges," said Jazmien Pender, a student at Havelock Middle. "I really want to go to flight technology."
Student Kasyne McCall said the lab offers more advanced learning than in other classes.
"We’re basically learning the whole technology of how a rocket takes off down to how a basic rocket is constructed," she said.
McCall said the rocket station was her favorite and is giving her ideas about a career.
"I might look more into how rockets and stuff are built, just the way they take off and just the way they are made," she said.
McCall’s station partner, Dezorae Maudlin, said the students get hands-on experience in the STEM lab.
"Usually in our normal classes, we don’t get to use hands-on experience as much, and we normally have to sit down and write what we do," Maudlin said. "Here we can actually make a project of it. It’s fun and you learn something while you also do something and your more likely not to do in another class."
Daisy Anderson was designing electrical circuitry in the lab.
"I like it because it shows you stuff that we haven’t done before that is available for middle school to use and it’s really fun," she said. "It can show us how to do hands-on, minds-on stuff. It shows us how you can actually make the stuff and shows us how things work, like material science and electricity."
Katie Murphy called it one of her favorite classes.
"You get to build stuff," she said. "You learn more from it and it helps you get good careers because you have already seen what happens when you were a kid and you kind of know a little bit about it."
At Annunciation Catholic School, students are being exposed to the same STEM basics. The whole school recently went outside to see rockets made by sixth-graders tested on the playground.
Science teacher Carol Mauro said the students had to design and build their own "rockets," then test them and evaluate the performance.
When the rockets, powered by soda pop and Mentos, didn’t fire off as planned, the students learned that they had another problem to solve.
"I think we’ve learned that some ways of doing things don’t work as well as others and when you have one that doesn’t work as well, you might have to put a little extra effort into it," said student Ellie Rogers.
Student Jacob Vernier described the problem.
"We didn’t hold it right enough on the tube so it could get enough pressure to lift off," he said. "The soda, once we poured it, lost its fizz. It was just dry. It didn’t have more pressure to go up so it was more a loss of pressure.
"Well once you fail at something, you keep on trying. Just put more time into it and look into it."
Trial and error is part of the process of science, Mauro said.
"I think it’s important because it’s everywhere. Science is everywhere. Technology now is everywhere. Math is everywhere," she said. "Now at this level they get to plan. They get to analyze. They get to see what they did. They get to create on their own. I gave them some parameters. But my goal is to get them to say that they love science because some of them, when they first came in here, didn’t like science. Hopefully this will encourage some of them."
Father Greg Spencer said the STEM emphasis is good for the school.
"I think it’s very important for getting the children prepared for their future," he said. "All the things that STEM does have made them be better prepared for the job market. Hopefully this will give them the opportunity to evaluate what they did and to improve and to grow and learn."
Spencer taught a rocket-building camp last year that was well attended. Samantha Raffaela Perrien, a fourth-grader, attended and made her own rocket.
"When it goes as far as it can go, it splits open right here and a parachute comes out," she said, describing her rocket. "You really do have to use gun powder for it. It came with a kit to build it. One time it landed on the roof of the school."
She said she really enjoyed science and math.
"I feel it’s just meant to be," she said. "It sounds awesome to go up there in space. That would be an amazing thing to do."