STEM and manufacturing career exploration expands to middle schools

How does an internal combustion engine work? What is a ShopBot? How do you use a CNC plasma cutter? 

Middle school students from River Trails and MacArthur schools recently learned the answers to these questions, and much more, during a 10-week after-school program at John Hersey High School that exposed them to STEM and manufacturing careers.

 Hersey instructor Rich Hyde works with middle school students in the NGE after-school program.

Hersey instructor Rich Hyde works with middle school students in the NGE after-school program.

“I’ve always been interested in STEM, and my mom thought this would be a great opportunity,” said Grace, an eighth-grade student in the program. “I like it a lot and will take a couple of engineering classes.”

Last fall, Hersey began running the after-school program, called Next Generation of Engineers (NGE), thanks to a grant from GCAMP. The program, which is also at Buffalo Grove, Elk Grove, Rolling Meadows and Wheeling high schools, gives students a hands-on STEM education as well as rigorous and relevant learning experiences through activity, project and problem-based learning. 

More importantly, the program allows middle school students to explore STEM and manufacturing careers at an earlier age, giving them a leg up when they begin high school.

"I think NGE has been a positive experience for these kids. They were able to see just about every career pathway offered at Hersey before their freshman enrollment," said Jim Van Bladel, a Career & Technology Education teacher at Hersey who co-taught the NGE course. "They have worked in all the labs, met half of the teachers, and hopefully we have shown them something that is challenging, enjoyable, and a possible career choice years down the road. It was great to work with these kids, and I look forward to seeing them again next year roaming the CTE hallway."

The NGE after school program is also held at Buffalo Grove, Elk Grove, Rolling Meadows and Wheeling high schools. NGE participants are more likely to enroll in a STEM career pathway in high school, as well as have a higher GPA than non-NGE participants, according to Dan Weidner, Director of Academics and Pathways for District 214.

Elk Grove High School started running the Next Generation of Engineers (NGE) after school program in 2017, giving 15 students from sixth through eighth grades an opportunity to explore STEM and manufacturing careers. 

 Elk Grove instructor Patrick McGing has seen the NGE program grow at Elk Grove over the last year.

Elk Grove instructor Patrick McGing has seen the NGE program grow at Elk Grove over the last year.

Since then, Elk Grove has run two more NGE sessions with more than 20 students enrolled in each. Students come from Elk Grove's feeder schools: Grove Junior. High, Friendship Junior High, Queen of the Rosary Catholic School and St. Zachary Catholic School.

"Students can determine if one of these pathways is right for them and further explore and develop them using creativity, critical thinking and problem-solving skills," said Patrick McGing, an Elk Grove Project Lead The Way instructor who teaches NGE classes. "As teachers we are able to interact with students at a much earlier age and develop connections with them so that they are also more comfortable and confident coming into high school as they have been around us, our classrooms, software, and machining equipment." 

McGing said students enjoy with the 3D modeling software and the machinery in the school's fabrication lab, which includes the laser engraver, 3D printers, ShopBot and plasma cutter.

"The incredible thing is we have sixth graders learning how to use this equipment the same time that a senior in high school might be; hopefully instilling a great sense of creativity and exploration in the career fields at a much younger age and bringing that knowledge back to their home school and later high school," McGing said.

See some of the work created in NGE courses at Elk Grove in the photo gallery below. Photos provided by Patrick McGing.