STEM brings wood shop into 21st Century

When the 2012-13 fiscal year budget was approved by taxpayers in Redding last May, the wood shop program at John Read Middle School was a casualty of a budget cut. However, in its place came the implementation of the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics curriculum (STEM).

Richard Engel, the wood shop teacher at the middle school, retired last spring and instead of filling his position, the administration and school board decided to cut it and expand the STEM curriculum, which has components on robotics and engineering.

Michael Kelly, a math and computer teacher at the middle school for the past 19 years, was chosen to be the new STEM teacher.

Mr. Kelly went to Roger Williams University in Rhode Island and studied math and then went to Fairfield University to study computers, he said.

“The math background led into teaching, and I really enjoy working with children,” he said.


Last year, Mr. Kelly taught a STEM class in which students designed and engineered their own CO2-powered cars.

By using the program SolidWorks, a 3-D modeling and engineering program used by professionals, students were able to design a car and run it through tests on the computer, he said.

First the students used a wood blank in a wind tunnel test on the computer to see the vectors and resistance the wind created. Then the students created the cars out of the wood and ran them through the wind tunnel test again and compared results, said Mr. Kelly.

“SolidWorks is used by colleges, engineer firms, and companies. It performs to industry standards,” he said.

Over the summer a MakerBot was purchased for the class. The MakerBot takes the design the students created and, using G-code programming, creates a 3-D plastic model.

“The G-code is just lines and lines of directions for the printer to follow,” said Mr. Kelly. It gives the printer information, like the feed rate and heating temperature it needs to be.

“The students love this. They take this great program and make a part and are actually able to hold it in their hands,” he said.

Before creating whatever the students feel like designing, they do some tutorials so they can follow directions and understand that language, he said.

As an example for students to show them they’re doing the real thing, Mr. Kelly shows them a car magazine that has parts they’ve duplicated. The magazine even has pages of car models they created by using the SolidWorks program.

“They’re doing the real deal,” he said.

It takes about 45 minutes to an hour for the MakerBot to print a model, so Mr. Kelly is able to print about eight models a day, he said.

“It takes a couple of classes to get them all printed,” he said.


New this year is the robotics class. Currently Mr. Kelly has only one set of robots for the students to work with, so when one section of students is creating the robots, the other section is working on a different unit, he said.

“The students are grouped in different stations with two to three students per robot,” he said.

By using the VEX Robotics Design System as the robot platform, students are able to follow directions, put together different parts, learn wiring and gears, and also learn how to design the chassis and frame, he said.

“In future years, the challenge for students will be to build their own robot from scratch,” he said. “It’s a lot of engineering and problem-solving.”

When the robots are put together, they are meant to perform different tasks. The students can operate the robots by remote control, or they can be programed autonomously to perform the task on their own, said Mr. Kelly.

“We set up different obstacles in the room and the student has to program or operate the robot to go around them and then park,” he said.

Mr. Kelly also teaches a unit on aquatic robots using a company called SeaPerch, which is sponsored by the Navy, he said.

“We order the kits and the kids put them together to make underwater ROVs, remote operating vehicles,” he said. “We attached cameras to them and launched them in the Long Island Sound with the fourth grade students at Redding Elementary School.”

The task-operating robot and the underwater robot are the two main projects the students will do, he said.

“The students really enjoy it,” said Mr. Kelly. “It’s a fun activity for all students.”

As a father of two girls, Mr. Kelly said, he knows how to pique their interest, so robotics and STEM are fun for both boys and girls.

“Girls are excellent robot builders — they’re very meticulous,” he said.

Using the SolidWorks program, he said, he’s had a couple of students create 3-D jewelry designs.

As this school year passes its halfway point, Mr. Kelly is looking forward to more projects next year.

“I’ll have another full set of robots. Right now I’m doing a lot of juggling,” he said.

One project he has in mind is for students to create a robot that will be able to play vinyl records, he said.

Part of expanding the STEM and robotics classes and curriculum involves transforming the wood shop room the robotics classes are now using.

The project, which was approved by taxpayers at the Town Meeting on Feb. 13, will involve a wall or partition to split the wood shop room into two separate sections so on one side there will be a computer lab and on the other side the work space.

Mr. Kelly said the wood shop has been there for a long time and an update is needed to incorporate the technology side of things.

STEM and robotics courses will prepare students for when they get to Barlow, and prepare them for college and the workforce, he said.

“Connecticut state colleges are requiring one year of STEM elective at high school starting in 2015,” he said.

Though wood shop was cut from the budget this year, Mr. Kelly said, “We’re not losing a program. We’re building a new one.”

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