TOWN OF TONAWANDA — When Joel Harden talks about problem-solving with his students, he doesn’t mean worksheets.
He means robots.
About a week before classes start for the 2012-13 school year at Cardinal O’Hara High School, Harden stood in a classroom lined with computers, showing off a robotics kit that’s used in a series of challenges posed to his engineering students — a departure from the usual classroom routine.
“It’s not just ‘do this,’ “ he said. “It’s ‘solve the problem.’ “
This year will mark the official beginning of O’Hara’s Engineering Guides Greatness Academy, which sent six students in last year’s pilot program off to college in various related fields. Harden, a science teacher and academy director, said that program is meant to promote the science, technology, engineering and math fields and challenge students who want to enter those fields.
“We went to give them what they need for college, to go out of college into these fields ... and to be successful in college and beyond,” he said. “The opportunities for an individual going into these fields are strong. People are looking for jobs, and they need people to fill these jobs. And then there’s the bigger picture, with the advancements that come out of these fields.”
O’Hara Principal Mary Holzerland echoed his words, saying that the program could open many doors for its participants.
“The possibilities are great for them,” she said. “For those who have an interest in engineering ... this could take them to many places in college and beyond.”
Two new courses were introduced as part of the academy: advance placement physics and fundamentals of engineering. The engineering class, which is geared toward seniors, is less a traditional lecture class and more of a student-directed class, in which students can take on projects that challenge and interest them, Harden said.
“We wanted to move away from the traditional class, me standing up here and expounding information and them sitting there absorbing it,” he said. “In this class, there’s really none of that. I will really never just stand up here and teach.”
Instead, Harden wrote a collection of activities the students can do, about 300, along four mini tracks, including robotics, computer science, advanced physics and engineering. Most of the projects cross over subject lines. For example, the robotics kit might be used in a challenge in which students must solve how to turn off a valve in a hazardous nuclear power plant. A program can be written on the computer to direct a robot — also built by students — to find a particular valve, go to it and turn it off.
“I just give them the question, the objective, the materials and the opportunity,” Harden said. “And now they have to go do it. Everything is based around that.”
It’s part of an increasing push toward the so-called STEM fields in American education, in part geared toward filling jobs and in part toward encouraging scientific advancements. According to U.S. Department of Labor statistics, many of the fastest-growing occupations over the next 10 years will require a mathematics or science background. In particular, the demand for biomedical engineers is expected to increase by 62 percent from 2010 to 2020, making it the third fastest growing occupation in the country.
Harden — who has master’s degrees in environmental engineering and physics education and who worked for five years as an engineer before coming to O’Hara — said that the first two years he was at COHS, only one or two students went on to study engineering fields in college. Last year, after the academy pilot program, all five participants did (about 10 percent of the senior class), with students going on to major in physics, biomedical engineering, computer science engineering and software engineering. Twelve seniors are set to take part in the first full year, with 20 to 30 coming up through the lower grades.
“It’s a huge change,” he said. “Give them the opportunity and, boom, they’re doing it.”
Student Anthony Candino, who will be a senior at O’Hara starting next week, will be taking physics and engineering courses with Harden this year. He hopes to go on to college to become an aerospace engineer, but that’s less to do with the money involved than the job itself.
“I just think it sounds interesting,” he said.
Another change has been the changing face of engineering students. Harden said that he was initally disappointed that more female O’Hara students weren’t taking physics classes.
“That started to change last year,” he said. “ I really can’t tell you why ... maybe they started to see physic as more accessible. Last year, though, we had more females than males (in physics) in a school that has more males in general. It makes you feel like you’re doing something and it’s working.”
And even if the students don’t ultimately go on to science- or math-related fields, Harden said, the skills learned in those classes carry over to many other things.
“There are things learned in a STEM environment that are applicable to everything: Problem-solving, logical reasoning, working in groups on difficult things. Failure is one thing ... and then to keep working at it,” he said. “When you get into the real world, and fail that first time, that’s a real slap in the face. We need to learn how to fail at things ... and do them again. That’s how you learn.”