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Engineering Success

Inside Sherwood High School's shop classes, students are conquering high tech equipment and preparing themselves for the real world of engineering
by: Kelly Moyer, A BETTER CANDY TRAP – Anthony Tahayeri, 16, a Sherwood High junior, demonstrates the candy dispenser he created using high tech engineering software and old-fashioned woodworking tools in his advanced Sherwood High shop class.

Want to dispel every stereotype that starts with the words 'kids these days?' Just take a walk around one of John Niebergall's advanced shop classes at Sherwood High School.

Glued to every computer screen are teenagers furiously creating architectural renderings of their dream homes; uploading photos of Sherwood's city hall building into a high-tech Google Earth program to literally put Sherwood 'on the map;' or building complex, computer-animated fantasy characters.

While other school districts struggle to provide high-level math and engineering courses and the United States as a whole lags behind much of the world in the number of highly trained engineering students, Sherwood High School's emphasis on engineering preparation classes is proving unique.

'The truth is that Oregon schools are far behind nationally in providing adequate curriculum in this area, though Sherwood is better than many other districts in the state,' says Chris Brooks, president of the TechStart Education Foundation, a group on a mission to awaken passion for technology among all Oregon students that last year named Sherwood High's computer science teacher, Terrel Smith, as Oregon Technology Educator of the Year. 'New state standards for technology education should start to increase the offerings we see in our schools.'

At Sherwood High, teachers like Niebergall and Smith promote the use of cutting edge technology to prepare students for the real world. But to compete with countries like India, which seem to be pumping out an endless supply of advanced engineers, Brooks says more schools need to follow Sherwood's lead.

'We need to continue to educate our students that engineers are and will remain in very high demand in Oregon and the United States and that we are at risk of losing our edge in innovation in the global market if recent trends continue.'

Brooks says Niebergall's program, which combines traditional shop classes like woodworking with high tech software and 3D printers 'is a shining example of how you can get kids interested in the engineering field.'

'It is fun and remains very lucrative,' Brooks says of the field he chose for his own career path. 'Especially for students that continue on to a four-year engineering college program.'

From lava lamps to Elvis toast, in 'Niebs' room, creativity rules

In a small space off the main classroom, senior Ben Foley punches the buttons on his keyboard and up pops the image of Foley's latest artistic creation - a piece of art that doubles as a lava lamp. It's an unusual project and one that could soon earn a few thousand dollars in scholarship money for this young man.

Foley beat out several hundred other high school and college students to one of three finalists in an international redesign contest. He will learn later this spring whether he's won the grand prize - $2,500 in scholarship money for Foley and a new laptop for his high school.

The redesign competition, sponsored by the Minneapolis-based business group Dimension 3D Printing Group, is something Niebergall promotes in his classroom. Last year Jonathan Crompton, then a senior in Niebergall's advanced classes, competed against 1,200 other students and won the contest with his redesign idea: a two-way radio control that fits on top of ski poles.

His high school experience has helped clinch Foley's future. He plans to continue with engineering classes, probably at Oregon State University, next year.

Not all of the students in Niebergall's class will become engineers, of course, but the training they get in these high level shop classes polishes their problem solving abilities and lets them get hands on with equipment they wouldn't get to use outside the classroom.

Some students have used their skills to help the community. A group of Niebergall's students are building a replica train model for the Sherwood Historical Society's soon-to-open Smock House in Old Town Sherwood. Others have taken a more entrepreneurial approach to help 'Niebs' as his students call him purchase a $30,000 3D printer for the classroom.

Seventeen-year-old Nick Banta is one such entrepreneur. Banta recently discovered that if you put toast into the shop's laser printer you can print whatever image you want onto the toast. Banta created a piece of Jesus toast (which he later ate) and is now experimenting with Elvis toast. Once he learns how to preserve the toast, Banta plans to sell the quirky art projects online and earn money for his school.

Buying a 3D printer would take Niebergall's students to a new level.

'They could work with local manufacturers, who would send over their specifications and our students could make a model on the 3D printer,' Niebergall says. 'They could hopefully earn dual credits with the community college for (working with the 3D printer.)'

The technology isn't cheap though. Although the Sherwood Education Foundation recently awarded Niebergall with a grant to assist with buying the 3D printer, the Sherwood teacher still needs to raise about half the printer's cost, or roughly $15,000.

Where are the women?

The use of such advanced technology helps make Niebergall's classes a big draw for Sherwood High's population of teen boys, but young women are nearly absent from the class.

It's a problem that Niebergall and his peers, along with many others in the engineering field, have tried to remedy, without success.

Ask some of the Niebergall's students why their female friends don't enroll in these types of classes and they just shrug.

Some young women follow friends or boyfriends into the classes and then get hooked on the technology and hands-on learning, Niebergall says. But most of Sherwood High's female students don't even consider taking shop courses.

Niebergall has tried to figure out better recruiting mechanisms for young women and says now is a perfect time for girls to go into engineering careers.

'Right now female engineers can write their own ticket,' Niebergall says.

Brooks, the head of TechStart, agrees that the lack of females in the engineering world is a problem.

'This remains a difficult challenge that schools and industry will continue to address,' Brooks says. 'One technique is to showcase successful women engineers as role models … and some colleges do better than others. Carnegie Mellon appears to have a great track record of recruiting women into their engineering program and the Oregon university system is taking steps to improve their numbers.'