August 22, 2019

GUEST COLUMN: CVU engineering–a focus on making and doing

By Williston representatives to the CVU School Board

Ask Champlain Valley Union High School design and technology teacher Olaf Verdonk about engineering education at CVU and he’s got a lot to say. And his message is timely. Verdonk’s passion about applying the math and science theory that students learn in their traditional coursework intersects perfectly with Gov. Peter Shumlin’s recent remarks about the need to ramp up statewide STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) learning for the economic wellbeing of Vermont.

What is engineering? Surprisingly, according to a Harris Poll, 62 percent of Americans cannot answer that question. An oft-stated definition, however, is that engineering is applied math and science. Professor Mike Rosen of the University of Vermont College of Engineering and Mathematical Sciences feels that this definition is necessary but insufficient. He has described engineering as a three-legged stool, with the legs representing math and science theory, creativity and the ability to make and do. He expressed concern that engineering education has traditionally done a poor job of addressing the latter. This is where the vision of the CVU technology staff shines.

Take the UVM TASC Engineering Competition, for example. CVU students have traditionally done very well in these hands-on competitions, and this year was no exception. Students who take the course are asked to research, brainstorm, collaborate, delegate, prototype, test, optimize, schedule, set goals, build consensus and constantly problem solve. At the beginning of the course, students submit a resume outlining their skills and courses taken, and, this year, two teams were created comprising a computer aided design (CAD) expert, fabricator and someone with electrical experience. Those who desire to serve as team managers must also provide a cover letter explaining why.

Engineering Club is another example of CVU’s focus on bringing engineering to life. Offered for the past six years, Verdonk, the club’s advisor, has charted a new direction for the group. For the first time ever, CVU fielded a team in the FIRST Robotics Tech Challenge, an international robotics competition that provides an intense real world engineering and problem solving experience for high school students.

The “RoboHawks” consist of 15 students who spend two and a half hours every Monday and Thursday after school with Verdonk to work on robotics, mechanical construction, programming, planning, web design, presentation and collaboration—all for no credit (and no advising compensation). These students are perfect examples of great education in action—collaborative, hands-on, self-driving, teacher supported (not led). In order to raise funds to participate in the FIRST competition, they had to obtain corporate sponsors.

What’s next? Verdonk believes that it is important to get students doing and making at an earlier age. And, he believes there is a need to draw more students outside of the student population traditionally drawn to tech classes and engineering. Verdonk provides a clear, compelling and exciting definition of engineering.

“Students don’t understand that their entire built environment is the work of engineers, which profoundly drives human behavior and quality of life everywhere,” he said. “In short, engineering is essential to our health, safety and happiness. If more students could see that link, a more diverse representation of students might choose to get involved in engineering.”

Willston representatives to the CVU School Board include Jeanne Jensen, Jonathan Milne, David Rath and Polly Malik. Their contact information is located on page 6 of the Observer.

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