DANVILLE — In a conference room at the Alcoa plant in Danville, Cody Bainbridge showed top corporate officials how to draw and manipulate geometric shapes using sophisticated computer software, then explained how he and his peers have used the skills to design everything from small-scale furniture to model vehicles.
"Can you do that, Rob?" an official asked Rob Woodall, Alcoa Davenport Works's director of manufacturing, as Bainbridge drew a cube, rounded off the edges and made a cylinder-shape hole in the middle with a few clicks of his mouse.
"No," Woodall said, shaking his head and prompting laughter from other officials with Alcoa's Global Aerospace, Ground Transportation and Industrial Rolled Products Division.
After the presentation, the officials said they were impressed with the skills of Bainbridge and his co-presenter, Aleah Carder, both of whom are eighth-graders at Jamaica Junior High School.
The students learned those skills and others in the Gateway to Technology program, which Vermilion Advantage brought to the school last year through its mobile engineering lab. President and CEO Vicki Haugen said the economic development organization was able to pilot the program for 230 seventh-graders at Jamaica, Oakwood and Westville schools thanks to a $20,000 grant from the Alcoa Foundation, a $15,000 grant from the Julius W. Hegeler II Foundation, a $5,000 grant from the Cadle Foundation and funding from the organization's Workforce Clusters.
"It has been a phenomenal success," she said, adding the program is getting students excited about STEM — science, technology, engineering and mathematics — careers at a young age.
This year, Haugen added, Vermilion Advantage, with the help of another Alcoa grant, is expanding the program to eighth-graders at those three Vermilion County schools.
Part of the national Project Lead the Way program, the Gateway to Technology curriculum introduces junior high and middle school students to engineering principles and technology. Students learn by engaging in hands-on, real world activities that call on their critical-thinking, problem-solving, communication and collaboration skills.
Danville schools introduced the program at North Ridge and South View middle schools about five years ago. Haugen said Vermilion Advantage wanted to offer the innovative program to students out in the county, and found a Westville teacher who was eager to teach it, put her through the intensive, two-week training and purchased computer software, laptops for students and other materials.
Then the teacher moved, and "we were back to ground zero," she recalled, adding the same thing happened at two other county schools. She added the organization came up with the mobile engineering lab and hired an instructor, retired Oakwood schools chemistry and physics teacher Deb Clow, as an effective way to deliver the program.
Last year, Clow introduced seventh-graders to the nine-week-week "design and modeling" unit. This year, she also will build on eighth-graders' skills with the nine-week-long "automation and robotics" unit.
Eventually, Vermilion Advantage hopes to add the other units — energy and environments, flight and space, the magic of electrons and the science of technology, said Kim Kuchenbrod, the organization's workforce development consultant. She said the units can be taught independently or in conjunction with each other.
On Wednesday, Clow and the Jamaica students showed Alcoa officials projects students designed and built, including a skimmer and cardboard furniture for Cabbage Patch dolls.
Carder admitted her group got off to a rocky start when building a rocking chair.
"We all wanted to do different things," she said, adding students, who were used to working individually, learned how to work as a team. They also tested their products, and if there were design flaws, problem-solved and fixed them.
Alcoa officials thanked Vermilion Advantage and the students for the presentation. "A lot of times, we give the money and don't have a clue where it goes," Woodall said.
"I'm very happy to see the impact it has on the community and the kids," added Glen Lawson, operations manager at Alcoa's Danville plant. "We've been doing this since we've been here, and we want to make sure we continue it.”
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