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Teaching industry’s needs

Stem principles permeate tech businesses, retail, food, construction and health care

Elias Ball, Mattix Sumner, Ashton Ropp, Camilla Wu (partially hidden) and Trey Talko. Courtesy photo

Editor’s note: This is the third in series about the future of education.

Penn Cambria High School student Ashton Ropp, 15, wanted to learn robotics, but his school didn’t offer that.

He initiated a meeting with Catalyst Space Executive Director Andrew Trexler, an Altoona native and engineer who is currently building an artificial intelligence robot to be his secretary at the downtown Altoona nonprofit that he co-founded.

“There just weren’t really a lot of actual STEM programs for kids in school. We saw an opportunity (with Trexler) and we took it,” Ropp said.

Ropp said he has an interest in becoming a program engineer.

Trexler’s Catalyst Space is an open-access, fully equipped business incubator and collaborative “maker space” like ones that have emerged in various venues worldwide since the “maker movement” started in 2005. Four tech-based businesses have been launched from the Catalyst Space since it opened in 2015.

“It’s fun. You are not restricted to certain hours or rules (at the Catalyst Space). We learn more there than in school sometimes,” Ropp said. “In school, we are taught to work things out on paper, but there we are taught how to apply it to the real world. We used a 3D printer to apply the Pythagorean theorem to build a ramp.”

Penn Cambria High School is at the top of Cambria County schools regarding state standardized test scores, but the school district is still trying to fully incorporate STEM.

The district has implemented coding, programming and game development. In addition, every student has nine weeks of tech ed in grades five to eight. But currently, there are no robotics.

Ropp and nine other Penn Cambria students in junior high and high school travel up the mountain weekly to the Catalyst Space. They are building and programming an autonomous robot with commercial grade materials and software at the Catalyst Space for a national NASA competition. They are the only team not entering the competition through a school, Trexler said.

Although makerspaces are not specifically an educational tool, educators intend to let students “learn by making” in them. Some schools have built or converted old libraries into maker spaces and provided some equipment. However, schools continue to expand their curriculum and assessment to make full use of those spaces.

Schools are catching up as leaders in changing industries fret over finding employees who don’t just know information in subjects as they are taught in schools — but know how to blend what they learn from multiple disciplines to create something new, Trexler said.

A new perspective

Trexler conducted a survey of 67 businesses in Blair County; 63 percent said they cannot find talent in skills necessary for future growth.

Interdisciplinary thinking or STEM principles now permeate all industries including retail, food, distribution, engineering, construction and health care. All types of businesses were represented in Trexler’s survey.

“What is STEM? Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics — at least that’s what we call it,” Trexler said. “It’s an acronym. Realistically, it’s not an ‘it;’ it’s not a thing. It’s really a perspective, to view things in a manner which meshes well to practical application or the real world.”

Math, science, engineering and technology mesh naturally, but STEM principles can apply to any combination of subjects. Art can be included.

“Most times when we are teaching or learning, we are learning all these things that are abstract. When we can incorporate all these things we can now see their connections, and we no longer have students saying ‘Why do I need to learn this?'” Trexler said.

Ropp has been working and learning at Trexler’s Catalyst Space workshop with all its tools after school for a year and a half now, he said.

Similarly, an Altoona Area senior reached out to Veeder-Root in Duncansville for mentoring in STEM skills that the school district doesn’t provide, said Veeder-Root engineer Joel Bobetich. He said the company is pursuing how to figure that out.

“In the U.S. in general, I just think there is a bad vibe that manufacturing or technology is dead, but it’s not. They think it’s dead because it’s not taught within the schools anymore. I mean, in schools sometimes now you can still go to school for some trades, but those who are on a college track don’t learn anything technical,” Bobetich said. “Just because you are not going be a welder or electrician doesn’t mean you don’t need to be familiar with the tools. I’m an engineer. I’m only hands-on because my dad was a mechanic. There are people in college who go into engineering and don’t know how to use a screwdriver. This industry is increasingly becoming highly technical and you need to do a lot of things.”

New tools of the trade are digital and include apps, he said.

Veeder-Root tanks at Altoona gas stations are gauged under the ground with a series of sensors and probes that alert computers or even cell phones about the fuel level, whether it is leaking out or getting contaminated.

Bobetich works in Veeder-Root’s new product department.

“We take an idea on paper and turn it into an actual product,” he said.

Veeder-Root uses new technology including Raspberry Pis or microcomputers and a lot of Bobetich’s design phase uses 3D printers.

Those are the kinds of tools that Trexler at the Catalyst Space offers entrepreneurs and students.

“We have 12 3D printers (some he designed); power tools for manufacturing; in the category of electronics, pretty much everything you can fathom — Raspberry Pis, oscilloscopes, function generators, everything you could ever need or want to test or try,” Trexler said.

Availability of skills a concern

School districts have access to some types of STEM technology through the Appalachia Intermediate Unit 8 if they pay an annual $250 fee. The Intermediate Unit is a quasi-state education department agency that helps schools in Blair, Bedford and Somerset afford the equipment.

But access to state of the art equipment is only half the battle for school districts; they have to know what to do with it.

“STEM is on our radar,” Penn Cambria School District Curriculum Director Jeanette Black said.

“Money is our biggest challenge but you can say that about anything. A more significant challenge is how to and where to develop a deeper understanding of the STEM concept as a whole.”

She said it certainly goes back to how teachers are taught to teach in universities. Even young teachers are taught in the traditional lecture-heavy methods instead of more hands-on student-centered approaches.

At a conference of the American Educational Research Association, the Catalyst Space was introduced as “the future of tech education,” Trexler said.

“I’m just trying to provide kids what I wish I had in school,” he said.

Trexler is an Altoona native who graduated from Claysburg-Kimmel High School in 2004. He described himself as a terrible participant in school. At the age of 27, the former U.S. Marine decided to pursue his passion of science and enrolled in to Penn State University’s College of Engineering.

In schools’ future, he envisions professionals including software programmers giving students a lesson over video conferencing. Meanwhile, the classroom teacher–after a summer of training with that professional in the industry — would be available to answer questions and help with the hands-on work.

A survey from a global professional service network shows the problem is worldwide.

Professional services network PWC.com’s Annual Global CEO Survey showed 63 percent of respondents worldwide said the availability of skills was a “serious concern.” CEOs of engineering and technology companies were the most worried.

Blair Chamber of Commerce President Joe Hurd boasts a partnership between schools and businesses unlike other county chambers.

“No doubt that needs of employers are changing, and many of areas with STEM related needs are probably struggling more to fund qualified people,” Hurd said.

No business in Blair County has billions of dollars to hire thousands of employees, Hurd added. However, he said many people are not aware of the opportunities locally. Graduates are attracted to more metropolitan cities.

“I would not throw schools under the bus as far as not producing what these businesses need. For certain, schools are doing a magnificent job with kids. We are losing students in great numbers for bigger metropolitan areas. As an organization, the Chamber is not doing well enough in making young people aware of jobs that exist here,” he said. “Then we have students say ‘I can make more in other more metropolitan areas.’ We come back with the argument that the cost of living here is lower than a Pittsburgh, or Philadelphia.”

‘A gold mine waiting

to happen’

Altoona is ripe for the emergence of tech industry and jobs, in part, because it is situated about three hours away from many major cities on the East Coast, Trexler said.

“Distribution, cost of living, fantastic business people and a wealth of knowledge,” he said are reasons why Altoona can be a hotbed for tech businesses.

He sees potential for online distribution companies like Amazon in Altoona as well as startups and research and development.

“There’s just no technology integration. … Who am I going to find when I need to expand my operations?” Trexler said. “If schools don’t teach students to be interdisciplined, then good luck,” he said.

Trexler presented to the Altoona Area school board Monday, which is figuring out how to transition to STEM education. Altoona Area board member Dave Francis said he was impressed.

“If that is the future of education with STEM and there is potential with jobs in area here, I think it would be excellent. … It’s amazing how education is going to change.”

The Altoona Area school board is debating plans for a new high school building. Regardless of the choice, Francis said there will be space for growing into STEM education.

“You’ll have the space to do that. Hopefully the district will catch up to this guy (Trexler). Our teachers will probably go to seminars to advance it.”

Altoona Area elementary and junior high education is incorporating STEM principles and developing maker spaces, but Altoona has only begun a STEM program in the high school.

“It’s got to be a systematic overhaul,” board Vice President Wayne Hippo said. “We’ve come a long way in the elementary schools, but clearly our weak link is at our high school level.”

But with students trained in STEM principles in high school, the future Altoona looks bright to Trexler.

“Altoona is a gold mine waiting to happen.”

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