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Howard students design, build all-terrain wheelchair

(Left to right) Jeremy Fedors, of Centennial High; Sam Markose, of Centennial High; Nick Hesse, Resivoir High; Prateek Nair, Long Reach High

One of them set sparks to a circuitry system. One burned himself repeatedly while welding materials together. Another still has the scar from gashing his arm on a jagged metal edge. But for them, it’s just another day at the office.

Well, not exactly.

Six Howard County high school students just finished designing and constructing a fully operational all-terrain wheelchair, a project they said made them feel like actual employees at an engineering firm. That’s precisely the goal of the Applications and Research Laboratory in Ellicott City, where the rising seniors took a career-oriented engineering class every school-day morning.

Though the vehicle isn’t slated for the marketplace — the class didn’t focus on commercialization — their project indicates an important connection between innovative education methods and the shifting economic landscape. The labor market isn’t what it used to be, and experts say the sooner today’s students start practicing the professions of tomorrow, the better.

That’s the fundamental mission of the ARL — a centralized institution enrolling almost 600 students from all 12 county high schools. It provides students with a hands-on education in one of 13 “career academies” and supplements regular classroom instruction at their home schools. It aims to increase experiential-learning opportunities during a time when employers highly value practical knowledge, especially with courses that help achieve nationwide goals of enhancing math and science education.

“If we want our children to be winners in this really complicated economy that we have now, we know that they need to be able to do work in high school that’s really project-based,” said June Streckfus, executive director of the Maryland Business Roundtable for Education. “It not only gives them a taste of it, but it really propels them forward and inspires them to enter that field.”

The 17- and 18-year old students in the Energy, Power and Transportation class — Steven Brackett, Jeremy Fedors, Nick Hesse, Sam Markose, Prateek Nair and Derek Zimmer — said building the all-terrain wheelchair provided a glimpse into their post-graduation lives, and they liked what they saw.

“Instead of being stuck in a classroom all through high school and then getting out into the real world where everything is different, [at the ARL] you are still with other people your age learning, but you get it in a real environment,” Hesse, the team leader, said.

John Ensor, the course instructor, formatted every aspect of the course to accurately mimic the real-world engineering profession. He said this structure illustrates how each lesson directly translates to a typical workday — and he’s right, Streckfus said.

“The greater a student’s understanding of what it is they want to pursue as a career, the greater their chances of completing a four-year degree,” she said. “Sometimes students change their majors in college, and sometimes it’s because they haven’t had these experiences like these Howard County kids have had.”

Basic lessons

Ensor spent the first several weeks teaching basic lessons on design and machining techniques. The six students then split into pairs to produce original wheelchair design concepts according to Ensor’s specifications. The vehicle must be electric, function through water and rough terrain, and be simple enough for a middle-schooler with a broken leg to operate.

In December, each group presented their concepts before their classmates for a round of intense peer evaluation, which they said is a cornerstone of the professional engineering process.

“We spent a week sitting around in a circle saying ‘I don’t like that about yours, I don’t like that about yours,’ so within the teams you had different ideas, and then when you presented, you had ideas from more people,” Fedors said.

Though the class eventually voted to implement Fedors’ and Brackett’s overall concept, they said they incorporated aspects from everyone’s designs. They learned to compromise and benefit from one another’s individual strengths, Hesse said. Because they were treated like professionals, they acted like professionals, Nair added.

“We’re one big brain,” he said. “That’s the biggest part of engineering — we learned that teamwork is everything.”

Next they split into subgroups: frame construction, power and electrical, and control and steering. After two months of sketching intricate orthographic projections by hand and with software, they were ready for the construction phase.

To keep themselves on track like professional engineers, the group used Microsoft Project to create a schedule called a Gantt chart — a dizzying graphic of bullet points and timelines outlining how long each task should take. Even though they underestimated their completion date by a few weeks, they said making mistakes was part of the experience.

“If you messed up in a big way, Mr. Ensor was like, ‘If I was your boss I’d fire you,’” Markose said. “So that really hit me hard, like ‘Oh my God, there goes my job.’”

Instilling passion

Part of the ARL’s mission is to instill in them a passion for their chosen career path so they can be successful after graduation as well as earn high grades in school.

Ensor’s class is a prime example of how Howard County’s focus on career-oriented academics is consistent with recent state and national objectives, particularly regarding the STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) disciplines. President Barack Obama announced his $5 billion “Race to the Top” challenge in 2009 with hopes that graduates with those skills will propel the United States back to the forefront of the knowledge-based worldwide economy.

The main issue in Maryland is graduating qualified workers to occupy the emerging STEM fields, which will be the major growth areas in Maryland’s economy, Streckfus said. Gov. Martin O’Malley created a task force in 2009 to study the issue, which recommended providing more STEM-related internships and lab experiences.

Officials at the state’s flagship university — The University of Maryland, College Park — have also aligned their priorities with those in Annapolis. University President Wallace Loh has said he will continue to encourage participation in and approve funding for the STEM fields.

Some of the EPT students said they might apply to UMCP, which enrolls a high number of Howard County students. In fall 2010, it was the third most-represented jurisdiction at the university, according to the Office of Institutional Research, Planning and Assessment.

Ask Ensor or any of his students, and they’ll say there’s no substitute for hands-on training. The students agreed the program has made them more confident in the direction of their academic careers and anticipate entering college with a leg up on their peers.

“It makes it a little bit easier to choose colleges,” Fedors said. “It’s like being a step ahead of people that don’t really know what kind of program to look for. There’s so many schools out there, narrowing it down is hard.”