Wheeling High School Preps Students for STEM Careers

This is an article that was submitted to us by IMTS that discusses efforts Wheeling High School in Wheeling, Ill., are making towards preparing its students for future careers in manufacturing. John Gross, editor and publisher of manufacturing news, suggests that if other communities were to adopt similar programs, the American economy could be transformed to compete globally and the next generation of students would be given the opportunity to showcase their potential.

Wheeling High School (WHS) in Wheeling, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago, has transformed the way it prepares its students for future careers in manufacturing. It may just be that if a similar plan is adopted by other communities, we could transform the American economy to better compete on a global stage while giving the next generation an opportunity to realize their potential.

I heard about this transformation while attending IMTS 2012 and decided to visit the high school and share with you what I learned. The school has a state-of-the-art prototyping manufacturing lab, designed in cooperation with industry partners, and includes the latest advanced manufacturing technology with a 3D printer/rapid prototyper, Haas CNC lathes and mill, CNC plasma cutter, CNC training stations, robotic work station, surface grinder, and more.

Michael Geist, manufacturing engineering teacher at Wheeling High School, said in 2007 the school administrators made a decision to engage the local manufacturing community to identify the employment needs of the region. A partnership team was created between the school and local industry to develop a vision of where the school educational program needed to go. "Given the fact that Wheeling is so dominated by manufacturers, we realized that our engineering program really needed to have a manufacturing focus," Geist said.

"Our village and local industries around us were more than willing to participate on a panel and partnership team and we soon identified other resources that would provide funding, curriculum development, help determine the type of facility needed as well as a plan for the lab," he said. "Over the last 6 years we have been able to achieve a lot of recognition for our efforts, creating programs for students who can now follow many different manufacturing careers of their own choosing."

Geist said it's also important to consider a student's planned future path: college bound, or occupational and training school bound.

"The lab experience and curriculum creates motivation and provides opportunities for all students," Geist said. "College bound students who are going into engineering need to have access to tooling, machinery and manufacturing skills. If they are going into product design engineering they need to have the ability to utilize and understand the manufacturing process."

For students going into occupational areas, "we help them understand that there are good jobs and opportunities today in manufacturing that they did not even know existed," he said. "These are high paying jobs. There are huge employment needs in advanced manufacturing. There are perceptions that these jobs have been eliminated and that manufacturing is a dirty world, that it has low paying jobs, that it is repetitive assembly type work, which is not the case today."

Tom Steinbach, advanced manufacturing engineering instructor at Wheeling, said the advisory committee also gave students the opportunity for hands-on experience through internships or shadowing. "We are trying to focus on both ends of the spectrum. A student can get an internship at a machine shop or a student can get an internship working with engineers," Steinbach said.

"One of the other major focuses in the last couple years is women in the field. We have been trying to increase our enrollment of girls in the program, which we have done a pretty good job on," he said. "We are trying to get more girls working in the machine shop. They work on projects and after-school activities that we have at the shop."

"Students leave the high school with a valuable skill and something they can use beyond just receiving a diploma," said Dr. Lazaro Lopez, principal of WHS. "The idea that these students are going to walk out of here with up to 14 college credits, on their path to an associate's degree in manufacturing technology as well as the NIMS certification in two or three areas, plus all four MSSC safety certifications, that is quite an accomplishment while you are still in high school. It gives you a real head start so that if you decide you are going to work right after graduation, you have a place to begin a career."