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Portland schools hope to bolster STEM education

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Portland schools hope to bolster STEM education

PORTLAND — Allen Armstrong stood in the middle of a classroom and surveyed students' work as they toiled on laptops, creating 3-D designs.

Armstrong, a retired mechanical engineer who's now a classroom volunteer, recalled when he cut his teeth in engineering a half century ago in his father's garage, building go-carts with motorcycle engines that he and his buddies would drive surreptitiously around his Illinois town.

Armstrong's high school didn't have an engineering class, he said, but Portland High School now does.

"They're getting in school what I got in my garage with my friends," he said. "This class provides the chance for students to get a leg up that I got in that other way."

The engineering class is just one of four initiatives in science, technology, engineering and math this year at Portland Public Schools. Those STEM offerings were the subject of a press event Friday, Nov. 22, at Portland High School, which included a tour of the engineering class and an announcement that a local technology company was partnering with the district.

Superintendent Emmanuel Caulk said the program expansion is exciting.

"We want our students to graduate with the skills that will make them competitive," Caulk said. "Jobs in scientific and tech services are projected to account for the fourth largest job category in Maine by the year 2020."

In addition to the engineering class, Caulk announced that the district:

• Plans to offer a STEM endorsement on high school diplomas, which will be available to students who meet criteria for excellence in science, technology, engineering and math programs.

• Will implement an after-school program that involves students in STEM activities.

• And has partnered with EnviroLogix.

Breck Parker, vice president of product development at Envirologix, attended the event with several staffers. The Portland-based company develops and manufactures "test kits for every link in the worldwide food production chain," some of which can detect the presence of food-borne pathogens such as salmonella, according to its website.

Parker announced the company has donated $10,000 to the district to help expand STEM programs, plus offers internships so students can "rub shoulders with Envirologix scientists."

The engineering course began this year and is the first step in a three-year goal, Caulk said. 

"Over the course of three years, students will be able to take courses in Introduction to Engineering Design, Principles in Engineering and specialized topics such as aerospace engineering or computer manufacturing," he said.

The engineering course was initiated by Rosalee Lamm, 33, who also teaches it.

Lamm, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology alumna with a background in geophysics, has taught physics for five years in the district. Last year, she decided the high schools needed engineering classes, so she worked with Armstrong to bring it to life.

"Together we brainstormed and researched," she said.

Lamm found a ready-made curriculum for the course through nonprofit group Project Lead the Way, and presented the idea to the district's administration, which was immediately supportive, she said. The recent emergence of charter school Baxter Academy accelerated the process.

"We didn't want all of our great science students going over to Baxter for science," she said. "That was definitely on everyone's mind."

The course is hands-on, Lamm said. On Friday, students were creating three-dimensional puzzle cubes on laptops. The cubes will eventually be rendered in the real world with wood.

"The curriculum is very accessible," Lamm said.  "Basically, engineering is making stuff, so it's really a great way to grab students."

Sophomore Emily Couture said her reason for taking the class was simple.

"I wanted to get into engineering because I just love math and science, and I wanted to explore more," she said.

Learning the computer-aided drafting software was difficult at first, "but now that I know my way around it, it's fun," she said.

Armstrong said the existence of the course creates career pathways for Portland students that might otherwise have gone undiscovered.

"We're not leaders in this area," he said of the new program. "Falmouth has been doing this for 10 years, but we're getting there."

Ben McCanna can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 125 or bmccanna@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @BenMcCanna.