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Project Inspire Brings STEM Education to Columbiana County Schools

Computer lab
Students design prototype with computers

Students design prototype with computers (Photo: AMI/INVENTORcloud)

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hanks to a nearly $1 million grant from the Ohio Department of Education, seven Columbiana County school districts and the Columbiana County Career and Technical Center (CCCTC) will incorporate STEM-based courses into their regular curriculum this school year.

Awarded in June, the $975,000 Ohio Straight A grant will fund Project Inspire, an initiative spearheaded by the Columbiana County Educational Service Center (CCESC) that introduces STEM (Science Technology Engineering Mathematics) courses to students in kindergarten through high school in 15 county schools. More than 7,000 county students will benefit from the courses, which are designed to enhance critical-thinking and problem-solving skills, and allow students to apply the skills they learn via group projects.

Project Inspire will use curriculum from the INVENTORcloud program – ‘Inquiry-focused, problem-based courses’ designed by Applied Systems & Technology Transfer (AST2) of Youngstown and offered through its Advanced Methods in Innovation (AMI) nonprofit organization. INVENTORcloud emphasizes critical thinking, creativity, innovation, and design, and gives students access to rapid prototyping equipment used in STEM Education, including 3-D printers. Students collaborate, communicate, and create virtual prototypes and real-life models of their solutions.

3-D printer producing a student creation

3-D printer producing a student creation

One of the goals of this grant is the overall sustainability of the program,” Vaughn says. “Columbiana County has a great reputation in implementing and sustaining grants, and I think we’ll have the opportunity to sustain Project Inspire with the partnership we’ve established with local businesses, and because our teachers will be able to become trainers for the next wave of teaching staff.”

Project Inspire will establish an INVENTORcloud lab at CCCTC with eight INVENTORcloud 3-D printers, two laser cutters, and a woodshop router. The CCESC has already had three days of training for the teachers who will implement the STEM education classes, and it expects to bring on a second wave of teachers in January, says its superintendent, Anna Marie Vaughn. CCCTC will also have a trained staff member on-hand to support the teachers and help teach classes via INVENTORcloud’s STORM technology that allows for virtual, remote interaction between the Lab and classrooms.

The CCESC has been trying to bring this type of STEM education program to the county for the last few years, Vaughn says. They saw an opportunity with the Straight A grant, which they were awarded in partnership with INVENTORcloud, Kent State University, Youngstown State University STEM College, Eastern Gateway Community College, Salem Regional Medical Center, and the Mahoning Valley Manufacturers Coalition. She says this grant will be a “great shot in the arm” to get the program going, and that the districts are already planning on how to reallocate their resources to keep it going for at least the next five years.

“One of the goals of this grant is the overall sustainability of the program,” Vaughn says. “Columbiana County has a great reputation in implementing and sustaining grants, and I think we’ll have the opportunity to sustain Project Inspire with the partnership we’ve established with local businesses, and because our teachers will be able to become trainers for the next wave of teaching staff.”

INVENT3D printer

INVENT3D printer

In addition to the lab at CCCTC, each school will have a 3-D printer of its own, so students can see how they work and learn how to operate and maintain the printers. The printer is part of INVENTORcloud’s INVENT3D, which AMI launched in March 2014 at the America Makes’ Project Management Review Meeting. INVENT3D allows students to assemble, use, and disassemble the printer, and “reinforces their understanding of additive manufacturing and teamwork,” says AMI’s executive director, Julie Michael Smith. The students can also use the printers to make the prototypes they designed during the INVENTORcloud courses.

“Columbiana County has been great to work with, and the [Columbiana County] Career and Technical Center hosting its own lab makes this project all the more exciting for us,” Smith says. “As INVENTORcloud grows, we want to build relationships with the school districts that will allow them to build their own labs and assist the schools within their vicinity.”

Students from Youngstown City Schools display their test model

Students from Youngstown City Schools display their test model

A lot of times, I think there’s a disconnect between education and industry”, Vaughn says. “Students enter the workforce with a certain set of skills that don’t exactly align with what’s needed…That’s why collaborations and programs like Project Inspire are so vital, because they’re rooted in 21st century skills and give the students an opportunity to apply what they’re learning.”

The 2014-2015 school year marks the second full year of implementation for INVENTORcloud, and it’s grown vastly since the year before, Smith says. With the addition of Columbiana County, INVENTORcloud will be in 55 schools this year, up from 16 last year. In 2012, the program had an initial run in Youngstown Early College, Chaney VPA/STEM, Mahoning County Career and Technical College, and Austintown, Struthers, Canfield, and a few others with its high school program. During the 2013-2014 school year, it expanded to primary and middle school, initially with The Discovery Program at Kirkmere. The feedback from students and teachers has been very positive, Smith says, because the students enjoy having a class that’s dynamic and engaging.

“It isn’t like a traditional classroom where you’re reading from a book,” Smith says. “Students are responsible for their own learning and get to learn different skills and talents and apply them.”

In addition, students have an opportunity to gain valuable job skills, she says. AMI currently has an INVENTORcloud lab setup at the Choffin Career & Technical Center in Youngstown, where it provides some students with after-school jobs using CNC machines to manufacture 3-D printer components. The jobs pay $10 to $12.50 an hour and provide the students with precision machine programming experience that’s relative to jobs in that field. Initiatives like this help students develop the needed skills that employers will require of their workers.

“A lot of times, I think there’s a disconnect between education and industry. Students enter the workforce with a certain set of skills that don’t exactly align with what’s needed,” Smith says. “Because educators often have many regulations and unfunded mandates to meet, it’s difficult for them to respond to manufacturers’ needs.

“That’s why collaborations and programs like Project Inspire are so vital, because they’re rooted in 21st century skills and give the students an opportunity to apply what they’re learning,” she adds. “They learn by doing, and I think that’s a change that has to happen throughout the education system.”

Project Inspire will establish a lab at CCCTC

Project Inspire will establish a lab at CCCTC

The CCESC’s Vaughn agrees, saying that through the collaboration, AMI can help the CCESC better understand how to introduce these skills at the educational level. What’s more, the skills taught through Project Inspire will help schools meet Ohio’s new learning standards.

In 2010, Ohio adopted new learning standards that demand students learn application alongside theory in math and science, as well as better reading, writing, and communication skills – the latter of which is lacking, employers say. INVENTORcloud gives students an opportunity to develop their communication skills by working together, and judges them on their performance rather than their ability to take a written test.

“Children even at the elementary level will be exposed to a problem-based learning approach, and will have the opportunity to be creative and innovative when solving that problem and maybe see a physical product as a result,” Vaughn says. “We also want to expose them at a young age to the careers that connect to the skills that they’re learning. No matter where students live, they deserve the chance to see what’s out there and to be exposed to new opportunities.”

Creating those opportunity is just as important for the economy as it is for the students, says Barb Ewing, chief operations officer for the Youngstown Business Incubator, and co-chair of the TechBelt Initiative. The Initiative began as a regional conversation between U.S. Reps Tim Ryan (D-17, Ohio), and Jason Altmire (D-4, PA) to develop strategies to reinvigorate the Cleveland-to-Pittsburgh-to-Morgantown corridor and surrounding regions, and transition to a technology and knowledge-based economy.

Local teachers are trained to implement Project Inspire classes

Local teachers are trained to implement Project Inspire classes

That change will impact the entire region’s economic competitiveness, quality of life, and standards of living,” Ewing says. “It’s time for a change, and it seems to be happening.”

“I think more and more we are recognizing that in order to change the economy we have to change our educational attainment levels,” Ewing says. “As the world continues to evolve, if we don’t get our students enthusiastic about these fields, then we’ll just fall behind the rest of the world.”

Nobody is too young to learn the basics of additive manufacturing, Ewing says, likening the basic principles to building with Legos; building layer upon layer of material. But to work the jobs that are cropping up in the Tech Belt region, STEM education will have to focus on how to maximize the technology and the process rather than simply how to operate 3-D printers.

“Anybody can learn how to use a 3-D printer. What they need to understand is how that printer can change their lives and how it can be used to create a better way of life for themselves or a better product rather than just superficial knowledge,” Ewing says. “That will require a more intensive type of learning. It will require teaching the kids how to learn and how to continue learning rather than just teaching them facts.”

As more companies and educational entities collaborate on getting these types of curriculums established, Ewing says a positive change is coming for the entire Tech Belt region.

“That change will impact the entire region’s economic competitiveness, quality of life, and standards of living,” Ewing says. “It’s time for a change, and it seems to be happening.”

Jeremy Lydic PALO Creative

Jeremy Lydic

Copywriter/Media Relations at PALO Creative