What does a shed, solar panels, computer animated design, auto collision repair, and 39 middle school students have in common?

The answer is simple: the Carbon County STEM Career Academy.

Over the last five weeks, students from Palmerton, Panther Valley, Jim Thorpe, Weatherly and Lehighton traveled to Carbon Career & Technical Institute in Jim Thorpe, where they received a glimpse into a few high priority careers of the future.

During each lesson, students became more excited about the projects they worked on, from learning how to remove dents on vehicles and seeing how airbags operate, to building a fully functional solar-powered shed.

By the end of the program, the students had received valuable tools to help them build a stronger foundation for future careers.

What is the STEM Career Academy?

The STEM Career Academy picks up where the fifth grade SHINE leaves off.

It was created earlier this year through a collaboration between Lehigh Carbon Community College and CCTI, and made possible with funding from CCTI and an LCCC Department of Transportation Grant.

It aims to teach sixth through eighth grade students about science, technology, engineering and mathematics through a variety of lessons and hands-on projects; while giving them insight into high priority careers in areas such as green energy, logistics, transportation/mass transit, engineering, and advanced manufacturing information systems.

Jeanne Miller, director of LCCC's Carbon and Schuylkill counties educational services and the Carbon and Schuylkill SHINE Afterschool Program, said the program is the bridge that the network of educational programs was lacking.

Until five weeks ago, the network helped children and families from birth through fifth grade and then from high school through college.

"It makes sense that the career academy is the next step in providing enrichment and academic programs to students in the county," Miller said. "It fits in with the mission of the (Carbon County Child and Family) collaborative."

She and Rachel Strucko, coordinator of the career academy, worked with Dave Reinbold, administrative director for CCTI; and Anna Leigh Rowlands, site coordinator; to create the program and continue the seamless educational network for students.

"I think the career academy is effective because it is totally hands on," Strucko said. "The children saw what they're doing in the classroom and then utilized those tools and applied the lessons to hands-on projects. Because of that bridge, the light bulb went on and the students said 'this is why I need mathematics' or 'this is why I need science.'"

Reinbold noted that the career academy gave students a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see what is outside the typical classroom walls and what CCTI has to offer.

"It was a fantastic opportunity for the sixth, seventh and eighth grade students to explore careers in science, engineering, construction, renewable energy and transportation fields," he said, noting that nine CCTI staff members; as well as student volunteers contributed their time to teaching the lessons and organizing the projects. "I want to give a special thanks to Donald Snyder, president of LCCC; Miller and Strucko; Rowlands; and the staff who made this a success."

Rowlands added that CCTI was the perfect location for the academy because it "provided students with a unique opportunity to excel academically; as well as showcase their talents through projects."

How does theprogram work?

During the academy, students arrived at CCTI Monday through Thursday for three-hour sessions. They received a hot meal from the culinary department at the school and completed their homework prior to scheduled activities.

Following homework time, they were divided into two groups and sent with CCTI staff to learn about different careers.

During the five weeks, the students utilized skills they learned in a state-of-the-art project, the construction of a solar-powered shed. With the help of staff members Jeremy Pease (CADD), Bob Teufel (carpentry), Gary Rodgers (electrical), Dennis Starry (auto collision repair), Hal Resh (auto service technology), Mike Lewis (technology presentation), Rowlands, Gloria Bench (academic teacher), and Kelly Petritsch (academic teacher); as well as two students, Jess Kohutka and Sam Weaver, the students designed, constructed, and wired the shed, which will now be auctioned off as a fundraiser for a charity at a later time.

Pease said that it was fun to watch the children learn the computer animated programs to design the floor plan.

During the construction, Teufel, who guided the students during construction of the shed, said he was impressed by their ability to learn and do the projects.

"These kids have a bright and tremendous future," he said, noting that they did the same work actual construction workers do measuring and cutting wood, and drilling and building frames. "This project was groundbreaking for the school. We never did a solar-powered project like this before."

Rodgers added that the students completed the wiring for the shed, which included installing the receptacles. He installed the battery, which is charged by the solar panels.

"I loved every second of this program," he said. "It was a great experience for the kids and definitely stimulated their interest. I was very glad to be part of it."

In addition to the shed, Dennis Starry and Hal Resh of the automotive departments at CCTI, introduced students to the world of cars and auto repair.

Students learned some of the techniques for painting vehicles, fixing dents, the construction of airbags and vehicle safety.

How did the Career Academy measure up?

Prior to the start of the academy, questions had been raised about whether or not this program would be beneficial. That question was answered quickly, as students eagerly learned and participated in the activities that were offered.

Results of the class show that the Carbon County STEM Career Academy is helping students educationally, as well as socially.

Strucko reported that of the 42 students who started the program on Sept. 26, only three chose to not finish.

She added that each student completed a pretest and post-test on the STEM-based information.

"The pretest and post-test that the students took showed that they gained valuable experience and learned about STEM through these lessons," she said, adding that the second goal of the program was to build a connection between the academics in the classroom with the hands-on project that CCTI can offer through their laboratories.

Strucko highlighted a few points of the test. Before the career academy, less than 1 percent of the students could list three STEM careers. By Oct. 27, 71 percent of the participating students were now able to list and explain three STEM careers.

Other results showed that after the courses, 100 percent of the students could name at least one way to go "green" in the electrical field; 100 percent of the students knew what CADD meant; 95 percent were excited about STEM careers and the career academy; and 95 percent said they would participate again in the academy if it were available to them.

What do participating students think?

On Tuesday evening, parents and family members had the opportunity to step foot into the world the students had delved into during the career academy.

They were provided with a meal, made by the culinary students at CCTI, and treated to a tour of the school and classrooms where their children worked.

After hearing about the projects from the students and CCTI staff, most parents agreed that the Carbon County STEM Career Academy is a winning program.

Jessica Gable, mother of Jim Thorpe student Colleen Post, said she had to force her daughter into participating at first, but after a few classes she was hooked.

"I am glad she enjoyed the program so much," Gable said, adding that Colleen's family has a strong technical background in the workforce, so CCTI had a lot to offer.

Colleen thought the program was fun, and said she also learned how to handle difficult situations.

Leanne Schlaucht of Weatherly said her child learned a lot.

Cassandra Lombardi, a Weatherly Area student, and Zachary Tongue, a Panther Valley student, both said that after completing the academy, they decided they want to go to CCTI for high school because it can offer them skills for the future.

What's next?

The future of the Carbon County STEM Career Academy is unclear.

Miller explained that LCCC is currently applying for a $600,000 federal grant that would help expand the academy into a 36-week program.

"If we are fortunate to get the funding we hope to build on the success of the career academy by implementing/expanding an afterschool program at CCTI for sixth to eighth graders in all five schools," she said. "The emphasis will be 'Jobs of the Future,' and include hands-on activities that are exciting and fun. It will also include a hot meal, homework time and help by high school students who wish to become mentors.

"Transportation will be from the home schools to CCTI and then back to home schools," Miller continued. "Students can utilize the program over the year or sign up for specific project-based activities like the solar shed. Our hope is that we can inspire students to learn and keep them safe."

She noted that if LCCC is chosen as a grant recipient, the sixth to eighth grade academy would be broken down into two programs and would cost the schools and the students nothing to participate.

Miller explained that students would have the choice of which career class they would take. One would be called the career academy, where students would receive help with their math skills and homework; as well as receive a hot meal and a safe, educational place to be while parents are at work.

The second option would be called career camps, which would be held four times a year. The camps would continue to focus on STEM and high priority jobs.

"Whether a student wants to be an engineer, a scientist, a pipe fitter, doctor, welder, in business/finance or a mechanic, they will need the skills in STEM for the jobs of the future. Young women have the aptitude in STEM but steer clear of jobs in those fields," Miller noted. "The Career Camp will arm young women with the confidence to pursue those fields."

Strucko, Reinbold and Rowlands agreed that they are interested in continuing the program.

Strucko said she already has many ideas for the camps, including building electrical race cars that students can race; as well as more solar powered projects.

"I am absolutely excited about extending this program because it would give more students the opportunity to participate," Reinbold added. "CCTI prides itself on our collaboration with LCCC for the career academy and dual enrollment programs. We look to continue and build on that partnership in the future."

"I'm looking forward to see where this program goes in the future," Rowlands said.

Parent with questions about the career academy can call Miller at (570) 325-2771 or (570) 669-7010.

Editor's note: Look for Part 4 of "The Faces of SHINE" next week, which will cover the SHINE summer home visit program and summer camp. These activities help students retain the information they learned during the school year; while preparing them for the next grade.