The Transylvania Times -

Everyday Education: CTE Class Routs Students To Their Futures


December 10, 2018

From left to right, eighth graders Elizabeth Contreras-Galindo, Bailey Musser and Emily Pulido-Contreras ponder a question from their teacher, Justin Ausburn, far left, as together they figure out how to program Brevard Middle School's new CNC router. (Courtesy photo)

The eighth graders filed into Justin Ausburn's Career and Technical Education (CTE) class excited but well-behaved. They were working on several projects together and seemed eager to get started. For the past week, they, along with students from Ausburn's other classes, had designed and built the CNC (Computer Numerical Control) router (a tool that cuts designs into wood or metal) that had been awarded to the Brevard Middle School through Haywood EMC's Bright Ideas grant.

Ausburn's goals are simple but lofty: teach middle school students how to problem solve. Kids intuitively solve problems, but helping them learn how to uncover the best solutions – and knowing when to ask the right questions or provide the answer to help move them along – is the art and science of good teaching.

Also important is knowing when to introduce concepts and how hard to push students. Ausburn is excellent at scaffolding learning for his students. (According to the Glossary of Educational Reform, scaffolding is an educational term that refers to "instructional techniques used to move students progressively toward stronger understanding and, ultimately, greater independence in the learning process.") Four years ago, he introduced Lego robotics to BMS through an after-school club. Administrators quickly realized that robotics should be more than a "treat;" every child should be exposed to the critical thinking and problem-solving that putting together and motorizing the robots offered. It was added to the curriculum last year; now 80 percent of the BMS students learn how to program Lego robots.

It didn't take Ausburn long to realize that more challenges were needed, and he carefully scaffolded the transition from those ubiquitous toys to introducing the CNC router. Robots of all kinds consist of identical components, so Ausburn and his students could transfer their knowledge of Lego robot construction to the CNC router in spite of the router's complexity and size. While the Lego robots are fun to work with, the CNC allows students to design signs, make Christmas ornaments and puzzles, or work in either metal or wood. They can create real-world products for the school, to sell to help buy supplies like more router bits or give as gifts to a parent or sibling.

Additionally, club members can compete against other schools. Originally BMS fielded a Lego club team that was organized for fifth to eighth graders through a regional Lego League. Teams build a Lego robot and solve a timed logistic problem. The idea is to beat other teams by being the first to create a clear path across the board or playing field. At this Lego League competition, they are also given a brand-new challenge to solve, which is also timed. BMS quickly became a major regional competitor.

With the CNC router and a new robotics kit, however, Ausburn has raised the bar for BMS students both in the classroom and in competition. The Lego Club has morphed into the FIRST Tech Challenge, a competition designed for seventh through twelfth graders that encourages students to solve a variety of real-world design and logistics problems using industrial components, coding and custom CNC manufactured parts.

It's amazing to remember these students are middle schoolers. They are learning to use Adobe Illustrator, Easel, Fusion 360 and G-Code as they program the router. They are learning how to read complicated, often incomplete instruc-tions, and how to access and interact with online forums to unscramble those incomprehensible directions. They are learning to work in teams, listen to others' ideas, respect each other's work styles and personalities. And they are learning that failure isn't the end of the world. Rather, it's an opportunity to re-think a problem until the better solution creates a path to success.

Ausburn leads by example. Jumping from group to group, offering suggestions on how to cut bolts to the wood cart group, checking on students designing their signs with Easel software and posing a variety of questions and information for students using the router for the first time, he is the epitome of a collaborative team member. Cheering his kids along with, "This is really complicated, but I think you can do it," fosters positive self-concepts rather than harsh self-criticism. These brain-nurturing opportunities, compounded with lots of movement and productive social interaction, create a culture of high expectations for student success and a chance for middle schoolers to glimpse their possible future careers.  

As Ausburn said, "Few of my kids will go into it [mechatronics] as a job, but no one will if they don't know about it."

Now those who are interested in pursuing this skill are ready to take high school and even Blue Ridge Community College courses. Those who go in different directions will still have been introduced to design, programming and, above all, higher order problem solving. It's a win-win for everyone.

Frances Bryant Bradburn is a Digital Learning Consultant as part of a Golden LEAF Foundation grant to the Friday Institute for Educational Innovation at North Carolina State University.


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