Summer camp gives tech students hands-on and academic experience
Ask 14-year-old Jake Gezella what he wants to be doing in 10 years, and his answer is swift and sure.
“I would like to be working at a shop on ATVs,” the Affton teenager said during a break in his week-long Adventure Academy camp at Ranken Technical College.
As someone who has loved cars and dirt bikes and four-wheelers forever -- “That’s all he can talk about,” says his mom, Kathy Gezella -- Jake was a natural to return for a second year to the camp designed to get kids interested in both tech careers and the so-called STEM subjects -- science, technology, engineering and math -- that have become more important keys to their success.
At this year’s Wheelie Cars camp, Jake and nine other high schoolers used computerized numerical control machines to work on cars they could tool around in on the Ranken campus as well as design and manufacture miniature mousetrap cars they were able to take home.
In the process, says Mike Noll, who teaches industrial technology at Parkway South High School and was one of the instructors for Jake’s session, the teens were able to get a head start on a future that is one of the bright spots in a sometimes dismal American jobs picture.
“We’re bringing a lot of work back into the country,” Noll said. “But the situation is that the factory worker of the future is going to need skills in numerical controlled machining and operation of robotics and a lot of electronics and numerical control. The new factory worker is going to be a highly skilled individual.”
And those skills, added Ben Wohldmann, a former Ranken student who now teaches precision machining technology there, will help create a new generation of manufacturing employees who already have jobs waiting for them.
In many cases, he notes, machinists in the past worked hard to make the money to send their kids to college, and those recent graduates often earned degrees that did not gain them a job in their chosen field.
“They pushed to get their kids to go to four-year college,” he said. “How many people are there out there now with a business degree who are working in retail? Our guys are out there making from $15 to $30 an hour.”
That approach makes sense to Jake’s mother.
“He’s totally into all of that stuff,” Kathy Gazella said of her son. “I don’t know if I could change his mind if I tried to. I want him to do something that he enjoys for a living, not just go to a traditional four-year college because it’s the thing to do.
“He can do the academic subjects, but he’s not interested in them. His father always tells him to make sure he likes what he’s going to do because he’s going to be doing it for a long time.”
What do you want to be when you grow up?
On a recent Monday morning, a little past 9 a.m., high school students assembled at the Ranken campus at 4431 Finney in north St. Louis and were greeted by college president Stan Shoun. He noted that as baby boomers are moving out of the workforce, this is a great time for students their age to ask the timeless question: What do you want to be when you grown up?
The skills they can acquire at Ranken, he said, both at a week-long camp and in a longer college career, can help them answer that question in a way that is fulfilling and rewarding.
“You can do anything you want to do,” he told the students. “You can achieve anything you set your mind to.”
Adventure Academy is meant to be a fun, hands-on way to learn skills to can help them reach that potential, Shoun added. But it also is a working environment, with expensive labs and equipment and rules that needs to be respected. He cautioned the campers:
“I’m the last person you want to see this week. If you see me, you’re going home.”
Then the students broke up into groups, receiving T-shirts in colors depending on which of the six groups they were in: Computer Camp, Gaming Gurus, Welding, NASCAR Race Engineering, Airbrushing: Paint FX or Wheelie Cars, Designed to Drive.
Donning their jade-colored shirts, Jake and his fellow Wheelie Cars campers went off to a classroom where they heard about their activities for the coming week, then toured the shop where they would be fabricating some of the parts for their cars.
Noll, one of their instructors, laid down the basic rules: Always wear your safety glasses, keep the shop area as clean as when you found it, if not cleaner, and be careful around the machines that cost tens of thousands of dollars, if not more.
“If you don’t know what it is,” Noll said, “don’t touch it. If it’s not yours, don’t touch it.”
Best of both worlds
Learning about what that machinery does, and how to touch it in the right way, are a big part of what Adventure Academy is all about.
Barbara Bragg, the school’s STEM pathway development coordinator, says Ranken got a $900,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to help use science, engineering, technology and math education to develop a resurgent workforce in the U.S. economy.
“We want to start kids thinking about a career at an earlier age,” she said. “We want to take the fear factor out of it and give them hands-on education.”
With the camp, which costs just $95 for the week, “we want to grow those students,” Bragg said. “We’re priming the pipeline for skilled workers who are conscientious. We try to prepare them not only with the skills they need but with the core ethics they need to take out into the workforce.”
Despite the fact that Ranken has a 98 percent placement rate after graduation, she acknowledged that convincing parents that their kids should get a technical education can be a hard sell.
“There is a stigma with a technical college,” Bragg said. “But when you show the value, they know they can come here and in two years have a degree and have a job.”
They can even branch out into the kind of occupation that doesn’t always come to mind when you think of tech classes.
Wohldmann, the former Ranken student who came back there to teach, worked in industry after graduation and gained expertise he is using with a micro-enterprise that he runs in machining and manufacturing. The business operates on campus, making parts for several area companies, with students employed to learn and earn.
The jobs they get once they leave school aren’t hard to find, he added.
“It’s the best of both worlds,” Wohldmann said. “You can run a business, but you also get to be part of the next generation of skilled machinists. It was kind of a far-fetched dream, but I didn’t think it would become reality.
“It is a job. They clock in and clock out. We have real deadlines. We ship things on time. Manufacturing is taking off like crazy. The world revolves around skilled trades. Just about anything you can touch, machining was involved with it in some way.”
And, he added, there are plenty of jobs waiting for them after school is through -- a fact that parents of the Adventure Academy campers should note.
“This is really a time when they have to start thinking about their future,” Wohldmann said. “In grade school, I thought I might want to be a veterinarian. You have those dreams of being a doctor or a lawyer or a vet. Then you start thinking about your dad working with his hands, and you want to be like him.
“A lot of high school counselors are still pushing other fields, so we have to get them and the mothers on board.”
Mousetrap cars and license plates
By midweek, Jake and his fellow campers had worked on machining their mousetrap cars -- small vehicles powered by the tension in the mousetrap’s spring -- and had used Ranken templates to design and craft their own personalized license plates. Jake’s had his name in capital letters flanked by a basketball logo on either side.
They also got to work on the wheelie cars they would race and demonstrate for their parents on Friday morning at the camp finale.
“It was fun because we got to do a lot of hands on,” he said. “We got to put the engine on a go-kart and actually work on it.”
That kind of experience is what he was looking forward to, at camp and beyond.
“I just like seeing the engine and being able to work on it and knowing how they do it,” he said. “I’ve helped my dad many times do oil changes on his cars and tire rotations and things like that. He’ll show me all different kinds of things and where everything is.”
Like his fellow campers, Jake had to use a computer program to design some of the parts he would fabricate in the shop. But clearly, the online work was second-best compared to getting in there and using his hands.
“I’m more into the hands-on,” he said, “not so much on the computer but more putting things together and working on it myself.”
Noll, the high school instructor who was helping teach the class, said that matching the academic aspects with the practical sides of industrial arts is a big push in schools these days. He said that earlier in the week, a group of elementary school math and science teachers had visited Ranken to see how the two areas of study fit together.
“They were bringing them through the precision machining lab to show the elementary teachers what types of jobs their students would be working at in the future,” he said.
“So they were showing them how they applied math to precision machining, the science involved in the materials, so they could relate to 8, 9, 10, 11-year-olds what type of careers are out there while they are teaching them math and science.”
With more of those jobs coming back from China and elsewhere, Noll said it was important for students to see how learning in the classroom can help them on the shop floor.
“Their future, they understand it’s right around the corner,” he said. “They know in the future they are going to need to be studying advanced topics. The work world is out there, not too far away, and I think they can see a relationship to that.
“Part of our problem in traditional education is that we’ve been teaching math in a sterile environment. I heard a student say the other day, when he was trying to figure out the angle of a line, this is the first time I’ve ever used math to do anything. They do see math in action here. If you can apply it, it’s going to be much more ingrained.”
Friday morning, the wheelie car kids assembled in Ranken’s carpentry hall, along with some parents and siblings to cheer them on, to race their mousetrap cars and drive the wheelie cars around an improvised track.
In the double-elimination competition for the mousetrap cars, with the racers aiming for speed and distance, Jake had a definite idea about how he would do.
“I’m not going for speed,” he told a classmate as the guys made last-minute adjustments and tried the cars out on the long track. “It’s really hard to get speed.”
Nevertheless, he advanced in the first two rounds of the speed competition, once when his opponent’s car broke and again when his rival’s car stopped just after crossing the starting line. He lost the next round, but advanced again before finally being eliminated by Reed, the eventual winner.
In the distance races, Jake said he had tightened the string on his car to get some extra tension and won his first heat; he eventually lost when, this time around, his car was the one that stopped a foot or so after it started.
When it was pointed out to him that his car didn’t have a spoiler but some of the others did, he said he had had one on his, but he took it off because he wanted to make the car lighter.
Then came the wheelie car race, where each driver tried to steer his car around orange cones, then get back to the finish line. The runs were timed individually, with the same car being used in turn by all the drivers.
Jake went last, and after his car sputtered around 10 feet, it came to a dead stop. The campers and interns swarmed around, diagnosing the problem and finally figuring out that a small part had fallen off when the car was bouncing around, preventing the wheels from turning.
Meanwhile, the timer kept playfully taunting Jake by calling out how much time had elapsed since he had started -- “Three minutes.” “Five minutes.”
When the mechanics finally got the car back in commission, his time were in the same range as that of his competition, except when he got a two-second penalty for hitting a cone.
When it was all over, and he was asked whether Adventure Academy was all he thought it would be, Jake was enthusiastic.
“It was more than I expected,” he said. “I didn’t know we would be doing any take-home projects, and I got to do three. And the wheelie cars were really awesome. I didn’t think they would be so powerful and we would be able to do so much with them.”
So would he recommend it to a friend? Emphatically yes.
“It’s a great learning experience,” he said, “learning to do new things with machines. Plus it’s great to hang out with the guys and try to win.”