• Bringing virtual welding, 3D printing to school

    When Campbell-Tintah business and technology instructor Richard Osman brought a handful of his students to the 2014 Minnesota School Boards Association convention to demonstrate one of their innovative education programs, little did he anticipate where it would lead.

    But the students’ demonstration of some of the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) modules available to their class — a 3-D printer, laser engraver and welding simulator — was seen by a couple of area school superintendents who were inspired to try to bring a similar STEM program to their own districts.

    That idea led to a piece of proposed 2015 legislation — known as Senate File 471 and House File 555 — that would, if approved, develop a Rural STEM Experiential Learning Pilot Project for up to 16 rural Minnesota school districts.

    This legislative proposal is expected to be heard by the Minnesota Senate on Tuesday, Feb. 17 at 8:30 a.m.

    Osman has been asked to testify, along with the two rural school administrators who first championed the project: Cromwell-Wright Superintendent Ron Bratlie — who makes his home in Detroit Lakes — and Rothsay Superintendent Warren Schmidt.

    The proposed STEM pilot project is based on one that has been in place in North Dakota for several years. Because of its proximity to the North Dakota border, Campbell-Tintah was invited to be part of that project — the only Minnesota district to be invited to do so.

    “This is our seventh year (in the STEM project),” Osman said. “We were able to get into this program because of our affiliation with the North Dakota Southeast Vocational Technical Center in Oakes.”

    Through a cooperative agreement with the participating schools, the Oakes facility was able to purchase the advanced equipment necessary for the STEM project — equipment such as a three dimensional (3D)  printer, virtual welder, computer numerical control (CNC) milling machine, laser engraver, and about a dozen others.

    “The State of North Dakota provides a lot of funding for the program,” Osman said. “There’s a $3,000 buy-in each of the participating schools does each year that helps maintain and update the equipment and buys some supplies.”

    In all, a total of 15 STEM learning modules are made available to each of the schools on a six-week rotational basis. This enables the students to get a taste of a wide range of potential careers, using advanced technology that is so expensive it would likely be unavailable to them otherwise.

    “The kids respect this equipment like you wouldn’t believe,” said Osman.

    Even when he’s not there to supervise, he’s usually able to leave the room where the equipment is housed unlocked. “I’ve never had a problem. There’s never been an accident, or anybody stealing anything.”

    Osman said that even with his background in architectural engineering, he didn’t know how to operate all of the equipment when they first started using it.

    “I didn’t have a clue what we were doing when we started,” he said. “I guess we (he and his students) all learned together. It’s fun to watch them take what they’ve learned in their other classes — math, science, English — and use those skills to run this equipment.”

    It’s also fun to see the creativity that arises from using the various types of equipment available in the STEM modules.

    “It’s only limited by their imagination,” said Ron Bratlie, who became very excited after watching the presentation by Osman’s students at the January 2014 MSBA convention.

    “Then at the Minnesota Rural Education Association meeting in October, Richard had a small booth as well,” he said. “I started talking with him about putting together something like this for our district.”

    In December, Bratlie saw an article in a Detroit Lakes newspaper about Minnesota state senators who were trying to help rural manufacturers find workers with the training and skills they needed to fill gaps in their workforce. Sens. Kent Eken and Tom Saxhaug were in the photo accompanying the story. Something clicked in his mind.

    “I had an idea of how high schools could create interest (in those careers) among students not planning to pursue a four-year college program or any other (post-secondary) training,” he said.

    The idea was to use a similar STEM module program to Campbell-Tintah’s to expose those students to careers they might not otherwise have considered, or even known about, in a hands-on way that could stimulate their interest.

    “I sent a letter to Sen. Eken, who had been a student at Twin Valley when I was the high school principal there,” Bratlie said.

    Eken, in turn, spoke to Senator Saxhaug, who said that he had been approached by Rothsay Superintendent Warren Schmidt with a similar proposal. “He (Saxhaug) said, ‘You two need to talk,’” Bratlie added.

    Schmidt had also seen the presentation by Osman’s students at the MSBA convention.

    “I thought, ‘Why can’t we apply that to us?’” said Schmidt. “We have been trying to get industry to bring in this kind of equipment (to the school), but they’re very reluctant when we only have 5-10 kids in a class that would be exposed to it.”

    With the type of consortium that Campbell-Tintah is a part of, however, Rothsay might just be able to make it happen, Schmidt thought.

    “In February 2014, I made a presentation to Lakes Country (Service Cooperative) and asked if there would be any other schools interested in pursuing this further,” he said. “At that time, Ashby, Breckenridge and Hawley indicated that they would like to try, so I developed a program, then got in touch with MREA and asked how I might make this become a bill.”

    It was around the same time that Schmidt became aware of Bratlie’s interest in developing a similar proposal for schools in the Cromwell-Wright area.

    “Ron and I have been working together on a plan,” Schmidt said.

    “We put a proposal together, and it just took wings from there,” Bratlie added.

    Senators Saxhaug and Eken, among others, authored the bill that will be presented before the Senate on Tuesday. (Reps. Paul Marquart and Bud Nornes are among the authors on the affiliated House bill.)

    Lake Park-Audubon is among the schools that have expressed early interest in being one of the 16 pilot schools if the Rural STEM Experiential Learning Pilot Project becomes reality.

    “At Lake Park-Audubon we strive to prepare students for college and careers and the STEM Pilot Project will provide an opportunity for LP-A staff to incorporate current technologies into curriculum that may spark interest in some rather new and lucrative careers,” said LP-A Superintendent Dale Hogie.

    “Rather than simply hearing about current trends and applications, students will be able to observe and use up to eight different modules over a two year period. The equipment that would be purchased collectively through the pilot project is an investment we cannot afford as an individual district.”

    Hogie added that he appreciated the vision shown by Schmidt, Bratlie and others in taking the initiative to put this project together.

    The proposed legislation includes a $570,000 initial investment by the state in purchasing the necessary equipment for the eight proposed STEM modules (bumped up from the initial $515,000 proposed by Schmidt and Bratlie).

    Each of the 16 participating school districts would be required to pay $5,000 for each of the four years of the pilot as their “buy-in” to the project, Schmidt said.

    “Quite honestly if we get this funding and we do a good job with this four-year pilot program, I think it’s something that will grow throughout the state,” said Bratlie. “I’m excited about this.”