Tonawanda News

The Town

August 29, 2012

Cardinal O'Hara adds engineering academy



“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.

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