Business, Education

Engineering their futures

By Heidi Zemach for SCN –

Alicia Morris and Brooke Estes build a model of a working elevator. Heidi Zemach photo.
Alicia Morris and Brooke Estes build a model of a working elevator. Heidi Zemach photo.

How many of you, dear readers, ever created and programmed a working elevator, chocolate cookie topper machine, solar-powered vehicle or a robotic cable winder while you were in high school? I would bet that not many of you have, unless you’re still in your teens or a recent graduate.

Well, students at Seward High School are doing just that, with the help of a district-wide grant for Science and Engineering (STEM)-related education. They are well into their second semester of a class taught by Stephanie Cronin, who is working hard to try to remain a step ahead of the students.

“Stephanie’s really doing a great job with this and the kids are as well,” said SHS Principal Trevan Walker, after watching Alex Pahno’s team drive the military-style ROV tank they created down the hall last Friday, then have it reverse course and return, the laptop that contained its engineering code riding on top. Walker is appreciative of the school district’s support, and proud that the school was able to sign up 20 students, and that they were doing original coursework unlike anything that he had ever seen at the high school.

The class uses no kits here either, unlike the new Lego-Robotics kits being used in classes now being piloted in the middle and elementary schools. Just typical mechanical parts like gears, switches, ultra-sonic sensors, potentiometers. The students cut out pieces of plastic, metal or whatever of various sizes and stick them together, in whatever way they will work best.

“It’s a lot of fun so, I don’t really even consider it a class —it’s just something I like to do. I don’t know,” Pahno said. Perhaps he did not yet realize that when something like that happens, maybe he’d just discovered his niche, one that he might never have realized he had because he’d never had the chance to try it.

It hasn’t just happened to Alex, who now plans to go into mechanical engineering, a career that his father once had. Hands-on exposure to basic engineering code, programing, simple machine mechanics and robotics, has turned several other of Cronin’s students onto the idea of pursuing various engineering fields.


The students recently found and interviewed engineers to learn what they did on a typical day, and then last week researched what education was required, which schools offer good programs, where they would find work, what they might earn, and how great the demand is for college graduates.

Jerry Swanson and Nicholas Zwiefel question Mrs. Cronin about coding for their cable winder. Heidi Zemach photo.
Jerry Swanson and Nicholas Zweifel question Mrs. Cronin about coding for their cable winder. Heidi Zemach photo.

They’re likely to be pleased by the results, as they’re generally in high demand—including here in Alaska, which is why the Alaska legislature recently approved SB 84, providing STEM education grant, and funded this Project Lead The Way (PTLW) program for use by Alaska schools.

During class Friday, Brooke Estes, Masha Hart and Alicia Morris were designing and building a model elevator that could stop on three different floors and that had an emergency stop button and other safety devices. These young women had selected one of the more complicated projects, but appeared supremely confident in their ability to complete it.

“I’m planning to go up to UAF next fall and take electrical engineering and possibly minor in mechanical,” said Estes, a senior. “I came to this class because I was interested. It’s lots of fun. My dad’s an electrical engineer and my grandpa did electrical engineering as well.”

“I think it’s really opening eyes to engineering fields because now I’m considering it where I may not have considered it before,” said Laura Kromrey, a junior. “I think the computer is a lot of fun and something that I’d like to look more into in the coming years.” She has learned all about what goes into simple machines that most of us take for granted until they break, and has been inspired by her teacher’s unfettered enthusiasm, especially when trying to explain the more difficult concepts.

Cronin would like to see STEM-related curricula expanded throughout the Seward schools, and has witnessed it begin in a big way this year. She would also like to see her own students receive University of Alaska credit for the class, as students do in larger high schools that offer more STEM course offerings.

An unexpected surprise in her own education in learning to teach the class, was that it has enabled her to integrate more of these hands-on, relevant projects and ideas into her other math classes. That, in turn, makes her a better teacher. The new PLTW class level requires high algebra and a little Trigonometry, Cronin said. But those without any “trig” learn it much more quickly when it’s applied to real things.


One Comment

  1. How inspiring for our students. We are so fortunate Ms. Cronin chose to teach – and to do it here in Seward.