Reality Check: Engineering Education Starts Early These Days!
Jeffrey Heimgartner posted on August 10, 2017 | 6128 views

As a CAD manager, one of my main responsibilities is hiring. I know firsthand how hard it is to find good experienced candidates as well as qualified entry-level applicants just coming out of school and entering the workforce for the first time. It’s important that entry-level candidates not only have a good understanding of the CAD software we use, but also that they understand how a business operates and how project workflows are handled. The future of business in all industries will be directly affected by the youth in today’s educational system. The more the educational system can do to prepare students to be able to “hit the ground running,” the more of a positive impact it will have on the business industry and, ultimately, the students’ careers as well. The first step in accomplishing this goal is to have talented and driven teachers who are willing to go the extra mile and do what it takes to ensure that their students are prepared for what’s ahead. For this article, I was lucky enough to interview one such teacher.

STEM in the classroom

Rachael Simons has been a teacher at Sparkman High School in Madison County, Ala., for the past 11 years. She teaches approximately 2,000 students in grades 10-12. Among other things, Simons teaches her students competitive STEM using Solid Edge. Her students have been involved in projects such as BEST Robotics, MATE ROV and Greenpower

Sparkman High School’s 2017 MATE ROV named Sylvia, which was modeled in Solid Edge.
Sparkman High School’s 2017 MATE ROV named Sylvia, which was modeled in Solid Edge.

Simons’ decision to teach came at an early age. Her grandmother and mother were both teachers. As a child, she played school with kids her mom watched during the summer, and she would frequently ask her mother and grandmother to help grade papers. She started her career at Sparkman High School, teaching Geometry A and B classes to at-risk students. The students she taught had difficulty seeing the relevance of what she was teaching them and why it was important. 

A New Method Utilizing Solid Edge

Simons, not one to be afraid of a good challenge, chose to revise the way she was teaching by incorporating technology activities and hands-on learning, even though the technical support and funding were not necessarily available at the time. She purchased a Verizon MiFi, brought in her own laptop, and purchased any necessary supplies out of her own pocket. She then spent the summer taking college courses in computer science and finding as many workshops and conferences that she could attend to learn the new skills she would need to teach with her revised methods. 

“If you are just giving them something to read and then problems to solve, even after you’ve shown them how to do similar problems, they don’t translate those similarities. They don’t understand ‘well this is like this, so maybe I can apply that here.’ There’s no relationship that they can bridge a gap to,” she said. “You have to figure out a different way to approach things. That’s why I like Solid Edge. It takes some of those concepts that they are reading about in the textbook and can talk about, and then they can actually utilize them and have a deeper understanding because they’re creating something with those concepts that brings them into a completely different world of learning.”

The results from Simons’ new teaching method were so positive that by her fourth year, she was asked to teach robotics. She was excited to move into this new role, and was even able to acquire some donated laptops to run software as well as some inherited Lego Mindstorms kits to round out the robotics resources. Simons summarized that first year by stating: 

“I realized students wanted to be in robotics to play with Legos and not invest in higher-order thinking processes. After further thought, I concluded if robotics education were to continue, creativity needed to be incorporated. Over the summer, I brainstormed about creating a company for students to take ownership in. I choose to compete in the BEST robotics competition to manufacture a robot from raw material specified in a RFP. At the time, another teacher was teaching Solid Edge. One of our common students modeled our robot in SE for the competition. Each year, I strive to broaden my knowledge; therefore, the next summer I registered for a Solid Edge workshop.”

Orthographic views of the 2016 BEST Robot modeled in Sold Edge.
Orthographic views of the 2016 BEST Robot modeled in Sold Edge.

Simons’ continued drive and motivation, coupled with her continued positive results, prompted the school to move her from the Math Department to Career Tech Education where she could focus solely on teaching Engineering and Robotics. Currently, she teaches Foundations of Engineering (FOE), Introduction to Robotics, Robotics Applications, and Project Lead the Way (PLTW) Computer-Integrated Manufacturing (CIM).

In the Foundations of Engineering class, students are required to model all of their unit projects in Solid Edge. Simons explained that there were many driving factors in choosing to utilize Solid Edge—proximity and support being first and foremost. She indicated that Siemens representatives have been critical in working with her when students were in need of support.

“In addition, many of my students travel onsite to Siemens when problems arise that we cannot troubleshoot,” she said. “Many students who take Foundations of Engineering are just exploring the class to see what skills are required for engineers. Most of the students I teach are not AP math students. Synchronous Technology in Solid Edge eliminates ordered limitations. Solid Edge allows students to explore spatial reasoning skills and advanced math geometry in a unique perspective while creating a model of a product they can build or machine in class.”

Simons teaches the basics in Solid Edge and encourages students to broaden their CAD skills through project-based learning. Having 3D printers, CNC routers and CNC machines provides her students with an opportunity to design in CAD and then machine their creations to help them take ownership of their learning. She also teaches her students how to reverse engineer by using calipers to measure parts and then modeling those given parts into Solid Edge.

“Students want the ‘end result’—something tangible,” she said. “They have to see the importance of the learning experience to appreciate learning objectives. In my experience, the ability of students to create custom designs in competitive projects drives them to learn new features and their application.”

Earlier I noted that one of Simons’ initial brainstorming ideas was to create a “company” for students to take ownership in. That company has become known as Spark Industry Robotics, or SIR, as the students like to refer to it. Simons went into more detail about how the company works.

“Students apply for positions in the SIR company we have established. Based on skills acquired in previous courses, prior knowledge or level of motivation to learn a new skill, students form teams in management, programming, design/CAD, electrical, and build and design. All students participate in the brainstorming process and produce sketch options for the design/CAD team to analyze and further develop. Management sets a schedule, the review time line and progress reporting documents. The students in management also follow up on progress, collaborate and report to industry support, and present for financial support,” Simons explained.

The Spark Industry Robotics logo.
The Spark Industry Robotics logo.

She went into detail on how SIR used Solid Edge to prepare for its Greenpower STEM Competition.

“The SIR Design team decided to do a custom body on the Greenpower Electric car kit frame. Despite limited machinery, knowledge of techniques, and finances, the team still chose to create a body in Solid Edge, test in a virtual wind tunnel, flatten the body in Solid Edge, and machine panels on a water jet to then be molded to the frame. Expanded PVC material was used due to the cost and weight of the material. Students used the CAD model to acquire the calculations for the body curvatures. Then, using plywood, measuring tools, foam insulation, HVAC tape, clamps, and heat guns, the students molded the machined body panels to the car frame and manufactured custom mounts to allow for temperature expansion and contraction,” Simons said.

Conclusion

In talking to Simons about any challenges she’s had implementing Solid Edge into her program, she said the biggest ones have been computers and software updates.

“I have a classroom of laptops that really struggle to adequately run Solid Edge—they are six years old,” she said. 

Another obstacle that Simons faces is sharing all the students’ files on Google Drive.

“Sometimes students working on a specific component of a project forget to upload necessary files,” she said. “It would be extremely beneficial to have an assembly population database search feature for inclusive part files with Google team sharing.”

Near the beginning of this article, I stated that step one in helping to prepare tomorrow’s engineering workforce was having talented and driven teachers willing to go the extra mile and do what it takes to prepare students for what’s ahead. Step two is to get the educational administrators and business industry leaders on the same page and communicating with each other. I asked Simons what she thought those two groups could do better to help the cause.

“I think the biggest thing for the industry is to communicate with the administration and counselors who are scheduling classes and provide them with the reasoning as to why this is such a beneficial opportunity for students,” she said. “In turn, the counselors and administrators need to consider how they are scheduling classes and how they’re setting up different courses for the master schedule.”

Siemens has sponsored ENGINEERING.com to write this article. All opinions are mine, except where quoted or stated otherwise. —Jeffrey Heimgartner

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