The Carlisle Mosquito Online

Friday, February 26, 2010

Minuteman students prepare for careers in Robotics, Biotechnology

On the upper floors of Minuteman Career & Technology Regional High School one can find a series of high-tech labs where students delve into the realm of robots and microscopes. In addition to traditional vocational instruction, there are two academies at Minuteman: one for Pre-Engineering and one for Biotechnology. These courses of study are rigorous and the students that achieve certification in these areas go on to four-year colleges and technical institutes.

In both academies, students take two years of chemistry, two years of physics and four years of math, culminating in calculus. Both stress the scientific method.

While Minuteman has not recently participated in the FIRST robotics comptetition (see article above), all Minuteman students are members of SkillsUSA, which is a non-profit organization that promotes career and technical education throughout the nation. It is organized as chapters within vocational schools. It holds regional, state wide and national competitions annually. Students can compete in their area of expertise within the school and Minuteman students generally earn top medals at the regional level. Several Minuteman teams have done well at the national SkillsUSA competition. Last year, a Pre-Engineering Minuteman team came in fourth in the nation. In 2005, the Biotech team won the gold medal.

At Minuteman, freshmen participate in a Career Exploratory Program, rotating through all the different shops over a four-month period to see where their interests lie. They are exposed to construction trades, computer science, engineering, automotive technology, Biomanufacturing, culinary arts, drafting and design technology, early childhood education, robotics and automation, environmental studies, plumbing, wiring, welding, telecommunications and cosmetology. Students are on a bi-weekly rotation between academics in a classroom and hands-on learning in the specific program they chose.

Biotechnology Academy

In the Biotechnology Academy, students are learning biology all four years and get much hands-on experience working with enzymes and proteins, creating solutions and growing cells. In the first year they learn how to set up and run experiments. They grow and isolate bacteria. Sophomores study probability and statistics. They make plate nutrients, grow cells, worry about the pH of solutions and make molar solutions.

“Kids run the labs; they have to keep organisms alive over holidays and vacations. They make their own solutions, not the teachers. They learn how to maintain the equipment in the lab, do media preparation and lab clean-up,” says Biotechnology teacher Patrick Rafter. “Media” is not video, it’s the solution students make to put their bacteria or enzyme in. He added, “The Academy kids are generally self-directed.”

Students praise Minuteman

Senior Torii Dodge is working on a senior project in genetics using Caenorhabditis Elegans worms and florescent bacteria. The entire genome of this worm has already been sequenced. Manipulation of the gnome, by adding, removing or altering specific genes, occurs by relatively routine procedures. Dodge is trying to get the worms to glow, which should be a helpful process in the medical field.

Dodge said, “It’s an awesome choice to come here.” She originally thought she wanted to be in cosmetology, but during the exploration of all the labs, “fell in love with this lab.” She explained that there are many fields within the scope of biotechnology. “I am happy to know what I want to do being such a young person.”

Senior Ken March shows off a sterile tube containing media and carrot cells to be cloned. March explains, “It is very difficult to get the proper sterile technique….We have an excellent transference rate…We get a lot of practice here.”

Students in the Biotechnology Academy also study the fundamentals of robotics. They learn process control by constructing and programming robotics using Lego Mindstorm products. They have participated in Mindstorm competitions at MIT. Recently, they won the “Windy 500” which centered around wind-powered cars.

March said, “The biggest impact for me was going to Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and UMass Medical Center. They expected us to be at the AP Bio level, but told us we were well above that level.” Rafter said, “We have a very hands-on program. It is technique-oriented.” Students master techniques by practicing them. March added, “This program is one-of-a-kind. It’s the only place to get this education at this level.” March first came to Minuteman for after-school programs.

Rafter said there are opportunities to work in industry and he encourages students to participate in an internship or co-op programs. March is interning with the UMass Medical School Center for Stem Cell Biology. He is working with stem cells and learning advanced techniques using some very high-end equipment including a $30,000 microscope. Dodge hopes to do a two-week co-op.

March is State Treasurer for 25,000 members of SkillsUSA. He feels this program sets the vocational school apart. Dodge will be presenting serial dilution in the Job Skills area. Last year, she competed in the Tech Prep Showcase, receiving a gold medal in the region and she went on to the State competition. This year, the in-house competitions start on March 18.

Minuteman students visit Carlisle

Minuteman also reaches out to middle schools. Last March, five Biotechnology students came to Carlisle’s 7th grade classes and ran several demonstrations. Carlisle Science Teacher Brad Cranston said, “One was how to use a DNA electrophoresis gel and some of my students got to handle the pipetters and load the gels. Another demo was a chromatography demonstration where they separated the dyes in grape kool-aid using various filtration cartridges and solvents. The feedback I got was very positive. My students liked taking part in the activities and listening to high school kids present. I think it gave them a little window into how the science they’re learning can be applied in a meaningful lab/career setting.”

Biomanufacturing option

Students in the Biotechnology and the Biomanufacturing programs study the same curriculum. “In many cases, they take the same tests,” says Rafter. “But the expectations are different.” The Biomanufacturing students do not have to take as rigorous academics. Rafter said, “90% of the students in these two programs go on to college.” This year, in the three upper grades there are ten students in the Biotechnology Academy. Last’s year’s Academy graduates went to Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) and Tufts University. There are also ten students in the Biomanufacturing program. Last year’s students from this program have gone to UMass-Dartmouth and Middlesex Community College.

Rafter says kids are prepared for many professions. They have learned bio-chemistry in a hands-on environment. They have learned organizational skills, work ethic, how to use computers, write documentation and essays. Students receive a diploma and a certificate in their area of study. He adds that two other programs in the state have started based on this model, academics and hand-on knowledge.

Pre-Engineering Academy

In this academy, emphasis is placed on the engineering design process: design, build, test, re-design. Students are instructed on mechanics, hydraulics, pneumatics, electrical systems, digital electronics and programming. Students will be well versed in robotics and process control by the end of their four years. Director of Career and Technical Education and Pre-Engineering teacher George Taliadouros said at a recent Open House, “We don’t water things down.” Those who graduate from Pre-Engineering Academy have a 98% rate of getting an engineering degree from college. Eugene DiPaolo, who teaches computer-aided design (CAD) in the drafting shop added, “You don’t come here to escape [work]. We apply the academics here.”

As freshman, students learn a “Solid Modeling” approach, transforming sketched simple geometric shapes into three-dimensional solid models using a computer software package. They learn a problem solving design process used in the manufacturing industry. As sophomores, students learn about digital logic and the circuitry found in video games, watches, calculators and digital cameras. They also gain a telecommunications background by studying lightwave and microwave technology.

As juniors, students learn computer controlled rapid prototyping. Using a flexible manufacturing system, they learn how to control several robotics, including a Pick-and-Place machine. They learn how to use Programmable Logic Controllers (PLC) and Computer Numeric Controllers (CNC) in automated manufacturing environments.

Students design medical device

Juniors Dianna Willms of Arlington, Darren O’Neil of Wayland and Ivan Yu of Billerica designed and built a CPR device which can detect if a person is breathing and monitor vital signs. The unit gives verbal CPR instructions as needed. This team came in fourth at the National SkillsUSA Competition. Taliadouros said these students and their invention were “STEM at its best.” [STEM stands for Science, Technology, Engineering and Math.]

Seniors learn computer programming, from BASIC to C++. They work in teams of two to four to design and construct the solution to an engineering problem. Students maintain a journal as part of their portfolio, deliver progress reports and make a final presentation to an outside review panel. The completed portfolio is used for college applications.

Pre-Engineering students have done very well in the SkillsUSA competitions. Last year, two received Gold medals at the national competition in Robotics & Automation. Eight Pre-Engineering students received Gold medals at the state competition.

Robotics option

Similarly to the Biotechnology and Biomanufacturing programs, the Pre-Engineering and Robotics Programs are linked. “We give them the technical skills and the education here,” said Taliadouros. He explained there is a 65 - 80% overlap between Pre-Engineering and Robotics. “The Robotics students don’t have to take the heavy academics classes.” As with the Biotechnology Academy, the Pre-Engineering students are advised to do internships and co-ops. Sophomore Anthony Perugini is in the Pre-Engineering Program and Robert Drinkwater is a junior in the Robotics Program.

“Minuteman participated in the initial year of the FIRST Robotics Competition,” said Taliadouros. We were asked to participate as non-competitors but as actual “activity evaluators and consultants. They requested our feedback. In years to follow, we had been asked to participate as competitors but our budget never allowed us to do so. In addition, we were not too happy with some of the controversy surrounding the logistics of the competition and the participatory roles of the professional engineers.”

There are six seniors in the Pre-Engineering Academy and no seniors in the Robotics Program this year. Taliadouros said the number of students in the two programs is cyclical. Some of these seniors are headed for WPI and Western New England College. Last year’s seniors went to Worcester Polytechnic Institute, Rochester Institute of Technology, Wentworth Institute of Technology, University of Massachusetts in Amherst, Dartmouth and Lowell, Northeastern University and a college in California.

Students in this academy can take college-level tests from Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT) as sophomores, juniors and seniors. If they get a grade of 70 or above, they get two to three credits on a transcript from RIT. Taliadouros said, “Students could have up to nine credits by the end of their senior year.” These credits, coming from RIT, can be transferred to other colleges.

Willms has an analogy: “High school is like Drivers Ed. You do the book work. At Minuteman, they let you drive the car. We get a lot of experience here.” ∆


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