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Algoma high school enters the future with STEM Program

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Principal Nick Cochart brims with both enthusiasm and optimism when he speaks about Algoma High School's technical education program--and for good reason. With its focus on the STEM Program (the acronym stands for science, technology, engineering, and mathematics), Algoma High School graduates who have completed the technical education curriculum are employed by a number of local manufacturers, including Precision Machine, D&S Machine, N.E.W. Plastics, CTI, Olson Fabrication, and Kewaunee Fabrications. In other words, they stay in Kewaunee County and contribute to the local economy in highly-trained, well-paying, and in-demand careers.
The program is so successful, in fact, that a charter was recently formed with NWTC that will make Algoma High School a full-fledged NWTC learning campus beginning in the summer of 2014. As opposed to commuting to Green Bay, students taking courses such as machine tool I or cutting tool technology will be able to stay in Kewaunee County and benefit from AHS's lab and shop space, saving both gas and time. AHS will allocate space for NWTC's initial pilot program during the spring of 2014. This year, Algoma High's STEM Program also received Wisconsin's coveted Manufacturing Education Innovation Award.
Technical education students at Algoma High School have access to state-of-the-art-software such as AutoCAD, Solidworks, and MasterCAM, hands-on, real-world computer programs that allow them to create virtually anything their imaginations can conceive, Cochart said.
Cochart, a UW-Madison alumnus who holds a doctorate in education, came from Burlington High School's state-acclaimed STEM Program two years ago, where he led both its technical education and career training education (CTE) programs. After revamping the "tech ed" space at AHS, he soon hired Matt Abel, a man who brought an extensive resume of home construction and related business experience to the program. Hired shortly afterward, Abel's teaching assistant, Russ Nockerts, is a metals expert who is a nationally-certified machinist and welder.
"We have more or less a project-based environment where a kid comes in and they have an idea then they design it and they do all that stuff...it is a different type of teaching model," Cochart said. "The big thing is that they learn all those principles in one environment which is key.
"With Solidworks and things like that, you can design a prototype and push a button, the amount of efficiency is (amazing)...the design turns different colors with stress points and capacities, it will allow you to change designs based on (physics) principles," he continued. Cochart said that Solidworks eliminates a lot of design uncertainty, making project implementation and completion much more efficient."
Algoma High School comprises 7th through 12th grade students, Cochart said, and many of the basic principles of the STEM Program are taught in 7th and 8th grades. By their freshman year, many students have ideas for projects they want to devote their time to, he added, and get a jump-start on their careers in a related trade.
The kids who go through the tech ed program own their projects, Cochart added. "It's easier to teach a kid how to weld when it is his own initiative, it is easier for a kid to build a cabinet when it is something he is going to have in his bedroom."

With a student population of nearly 300, nearly one-third of the students attend tech ed courses on any given day during the seven-hour schedule of periods. The demand for the program has been accommodated by the STEM Program's number of work stations (fourteen workstations feature Solidworks software) and the size of its shop space. Cochart pointed out that the software design stations at the High School are often more sophisticated than what students will find in the workplace, giving them a leg up in a competitive job market.

"Right now, a kid coming through our program is going to have the lion's share of requirements for an Associate's degree in CNC Machining, our goal is that within the next year that all of the students graduating from Algoma High School will also leave here with either a National Institute for Metalworking Skills (NIMS) certification, most of the work on an associate's degree done, or an early start on freshman and sophomore courses at a four-year college," Cochart said.
"It helps all of us, it helps us become an innovative school, it helps mom and dad so that they don't have to shell out thousands of dollars for tuition, and they get hooked up with a company that has a viable career for them, not just a job, and they don't have to be machinists either, these companies also have accountants, administrative people, legal people...," Cochart continued.
The use of advanced computer design technology has made the STEM program lucrative in the eyes of local businesses as well, Cochart explained. "A lot of local business owners will drop by just to see how our students are doing...it is so powerful to see these guys walk in, I think businesses now have to (attract) kids before they leave high school."
One of those local businesses, located in Algoma, that have benefitted from AHS grads who cut their teeth on the STEM Program is Precision Machine.
At the 15th annual Manufacturing Awards of Distinction, Precision Machine and Luxemburg's N.E.W. Plastics were both honored by Advance, a program of the Green Bay Area Chamber of Commerce.

Precision Machine was specifically mentioned about its successful partnership with Algoma High School's STEM Program. New, young talent is key to keeping local business sustainable, said Mark Kaiser, president and CEO of Lindquist Machine.

"Nick Cochart came over and said he wanted to change the face of education and how manufacturing and education can be tied together (so) the (first) reason we got involved with the STEM Program was that we wanted to find people who are educated and who wanted these kinds of jobs working in manufacturing...we were on-board right from the start," said Jamie Spitzer, owner of Precision Machine.

"The second reason is that this thing had a win/win written all over it, our goal was to do whatever we could to give the high schools help, we are actually able to give them physical jobs to do so it's not just working on the shop floor...day to day, it is like we (teachers, students, and trainers) are equals and we continue every day to make it better," Spitzer added. "We send guys up there to help them train and show them how to use the machines and tools properly and (the kids) are getting their hands on multiple facets of running a business."

Wolf Tech, Cochart's brainchild, allows students to not only partner with local manufacturers like Precision Machine but actually serve as parts vendors and design websites for them in the IT Lab. More than a mere cottage industry, it gives kids in the program real-world opportunities to design and sell their products to local manufacturers.

Spitzer said that there is an abundance of kids who go to high school and get lost in the shuffle, an experience the Luxemburg-Casco grad identifies with. On the other hand, the STEM Program allows students at AHS immediate real-world experience with design, manufacturing, accounting, and marketing.

"Nick's goal is to take what we have learned as a community, as a business, and as a school and take that knowledge and apply it to other fields such as health and medical--businesses such as Bellin Health and North Shore. Almost in cookie-cutter fashion, the STEM Program can ultimately serve as a genuine stem, blossoming and cross-pollinating a variety of other businesses, Spitzer said.

"One of the things that Nick has also been vocal about is that we are trying to take the risk out of taxpayer's hands so that as we expand and we are working with businesses, there is a revenue stream that says the high school's business--Wolf Tech--they have is producing a business that is sellable and they don't have to beg the communities to do this with a referendum...we are also going to benefit as a community and as manufacturers by giving students the satisfaction of doing something they love rather than because they have to do it," Spitzer concluded.

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