Totino-Grace to graduate first seniors with engineering know-how

| January 14, 2016 | 0 Comments
Totino-Grace High School senior John Wander, right, helps Frassati Catholic Academy seventh-graders Nicholas Gambeski, left, Jack Gorman and Conor Cooper with an engineering project during a visit Frassati students made to T-G to learn about the Engineering Institute. Dave Hrbacek/The Catholic Spirit

Totino-Grace High School senior John Wander, right, helps Frassati Catholic Academy seventh-graders Nicholas Gambeski, left, Jack Gorman and Conor Cooper with an engineering project during a visit Frassati students made to T-G to learn about the Engineering Institute. Dave Hrbacek/The Catholic Spirit

Since his sophomore year, Tommy Paal, a senior at Totino-Grace High School in Fridley, has considered pursuing an engineering career.

Now, as he enters his final semester of high school, he is more sure of his choice, thanks to a program the school started three years ago. The E3 Engineering Institute is designed to provide courses in the classroom and outside experiences with engineering, including field trips and mentoring.

“I’m going to look at going into either mechanical or aerospace engineering next year; I have a few schools still on my list — Minnesota, [University of Wisconsin] Madison and Notre Dame,” Paal said. “As a sophomore, I knew I kind of wanted to do something in engineering, but I didn’t really know a whole lot about it. So, this program gave me a look at all the fields in it.”

That’s exactly what teachers such as Dan Vandermyde envisioned when they launched the program. With a background teaching physics, Vandermyde was asked to explore the possibility of offering a program that would introduce T-G students to engineering inside and outside the classroom.

“We developed this for probably two years prior to starting this program,” said Vandermyde, who was promoted to assistant principal three years ago and now co-directs the program with teacher Matt Thibodeau. “What we realized is that most people don’t have a true understanding of what engineering is, what engineers do and how big and broad that [field] is, how many different and varied career opportunities are available within that engineering umbrella.

“So we made a focus of our program exposing more of our students to that reality. And, the best way to do that is to give them first-hand experiences.”

Students are diving into the opportunity. This year, 48 seniors are completing their third year. A total of 180 students are enrolled in the optional program, with the number of sophomores and juniors nearly identical.

Mentors in the field

The program is available only to grades 10-12; ninth-grade students apply as they become interested during their first year. Vandermyde said most are accepted, and only a few have dropped out.

Right away during sophomore year, each student is paired with a professional engineer who serves as a mentor. Students are asked to connect with their mentors at least once each semester, either in person or via Skype, FaceTime or telephone. The co-directors say many students go far beyond that.

“I think it’s good [to have a mentor in the engineering field],” said senior Kourtney Shermoen, who plans to study computer science and forensics in college. “It’s not just the schooling questions you get answered in classes. It’s the real-life [questions] you can ask them. It’s really helpful to go to them with any questions I have or concerns about engineering.”

The enthusiasm works both ways, said Thibodeau, who works to organize field trips and talks to engineers to get their feedback on the program.

“It’s huge,” he said of the response from engineers and firms. “It’s way more than what we expected. . . . Initially, we were worried: Are we going to be able to get enough mentors, are we going to be able to get enough field trips? Part of my role is being responsible for the field trips. And, I am turning down companies because we have so many offers to take us on field trips.”

This year, there will be 20 field trips, he noted. In some instances, up to 30 or 40 engineers with a company are giving an entire day to the students when they visit. Some of them also offer a full day to students who want to shadow them.

But, as the co-directors are careful to point out, the goal is not to make engineers of every student who goes through the program. Rather, they want students to learn about the field so that they can make better choices about colleges and careers later, even if they don’t choose engineering.

Boosting girl-boy ratio

Among the program’s goals is to attract more girls to the program. Vandermyde estimates that 35 percent of the program’s 180 students are female. Thibodeau said he would like to someday see a 50-50 split between boys and girls.

What could help boost interest in the program overall are the days when Catholic elementary schools visit Totino-Grace to learn more about engineering.

So far, four schools — St. Odilia in Shoreview, Epiphany in Coon Rapids,
St. John the Baptist in New Brighton and Frassati Catholic Academy in White Bear Lake — either have visited or are scheduled to do so.

“It makes me wish that I had an opportunity like that when I was in middle school, because I wasn’t introduced to engineering at all in elementary or middle school,” Shermoen said. “I think it’s super cool getting introduced to it and actually getting to do [engineering] projects [while in middle school].”

Not that the co-directors are worried about the future of the program. Both say it looks bright.

“I think it’s just going to grow,” Thibodeau said. “I think a lot of people are excited about it. I think a lot of professional engineers and firms are excited about what we’re doing.”

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