Drones, supersuits and robots: Manatee County students of all ages work on shaping the future with STEM

eearl@bradenton.comMarch 18, 2014 

MANATEE -- Long gone are the days of shop class.

Middle and high school students now develop skills in computer coding and robotics as part of their daily routine for science, technology, engineering and mathematics education.

While these STEM programs give middle and high school students hands-on classroom experiences and chances to shine at Technology Student Association competitions, the Manatee County School District and its library partners want to introduce students to STEM earlier.

"The students are living in a world where this has become the norm," said Gil Burlew, engineering instructor at Braden River High School. "The dynasties start in the little leagues."

Manatee County students excelled at the 2014 Technology Student Association state championships.

Braden River, Southeast, Lakewood Ranch, Manatee and Bayshore high schools and Haile, Johnson and Nolan middle schools all took home top prizes in a variety of categories at the state championships last month, including dragster, agriculture and biotechnology, digital photography, animatronics, engineering design, construction, fashion design and environmental science. The top teams move on to the national championships in Washington, D.C., in June.

Projects are not finished when the state championships are over. Students in Burlew's class are gearing up for Braden River High School's Spring Fling Day, where they will show off their projects in action, including robots and drones they have constructed, and sell items such as mirrors, chests and clocks made in the 3D design program SolidWorks to benefit the school program and the American Cancer Society.

Burlew stresses perfection even for the spring fling.

"Make something you will actually be proud of," Burlew told students.

All of his students have reason to be proud of their STEM accomplishments this year, especially top finishers in the Technology Student Association championships, he said.

Thexo prototype design

The winning engineering design team came up with a prototype for a device to aid patients suffering from neuromuscular disorders such as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, better known as Lou Gehrig's disease.

The topic of muscular atrophy is especially fresh in the minds of Braden River High School students with the recent death of teacher Scott Lovett, who died from ALS after retiring from Braden River High School.

The device, called Thexo, is essentially an air-powered circuit board that straps to the user chests and arms, much like armor. The device can be turned to different levels of resistance to maintain and slowly rehabilitate muscles.

It is not a cure. It is meant to stabilize users.

Thexo straps have not been fully developed yet, but the air-pumping mechanisms do work. For the national competition, students will demonstrate how the device can be used to train and retrain muscles. Thexo is made of aluminum, but the team plans on remaking it with lighter carbon fiber for the national competition.

Sophomore Elezar Tonev and senior Abigail Holmes said the project was inspired by a team member's parent who works with prosthetics -- and a bit of movie magic.

Holmes cited the movie "Elysium" as a muse. In the science-fiction film, the upper class own bays they use daily to heal all manner of ailments, broken bones and even cancer. The movie also features a power exoskeleton that gives users super strength.

"Movies inspire innovation," Holmes said. "We thought we could take that idea and apply it to people with disabilities. It is also a confidence booster because they can be in control of their own therapy."

Braden River High School students Blake Humbert, CJ Cooper and Justin Proshka worked on the project along with Tonev and Holmes.

"STEM is the future of the working world," said sophomore Michael Klena, who competed in web design and open source software. "By preparing us, it allows us to be more effective in those fields."

Burlew said this is why STEM courses should be taught in elementary school to involve younger students in hands-on projects.

The Manatee County Public Library system does offer a program promoting STEM for preschoolers, elementary students and pre-teens, which launched in February.

Jyna Scheeran, Manatee Central Library program coordinator, said this is the first year the library system made STEM a major focus and "it is just the beginning," she said.

Mad Science at libraries

The second Saturday of every month through December, Mad Science of Tampa Bay will visit public libraries around Manatee County staging interactive, project-based workshops in topics ranging from Earth science, astronomy, biology and physics.

The theme of the series, "Here, There and Everywhere," aims to show youngsters how the laws of physics coincide with their everyday lives.

"Libraries give a heart and core for enriching the community," Scheeran said, "We are all in this together, providing a similar mission and a central space for stimulation and immersion for all ages."

Scheeran said the Here, There and Everywhere series is made possible through a grant from NASA and was developed by the Chandra X-Ray Center at the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory. The South Florida Museum is also partnering with the library system for the events.

Series events will take place at the South Manatee, Rocky Bluff, Palmetto, Island, Braden River and Central libraries. Events for pre-schoolers and elementary students include telescope nights and programs and ecosystems, movie effects, the ocean, energy and robotics.

Burlew credits the community, the school district and teachers for the success of middle and high school students. He said Doug Wagner, district director of adult career and technical education, deserves special thanks.

"He was been an inspiration and gave us the tools," Burlew said. "The kids are the amazing people who make it happen."

Burlew pointed to a wooden plaque hanging above his door frame.

"That is my quote of the day," Burlew said. "Talent wins events, but teamwork wins championships."

Erica Earl, education reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7081

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