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HOBART — Engineering design and development, computer assisted design, robotics, programming and 3D printing — you'd think you were on a college campus when viewing a list of courses offered for the next semester at Hobart High School.

But those are among the seven engineering courses offered at the school where students are getting in on STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) classes early.

Brent Vermeulen, engineering department chairman and Project Lead the Way instructor, teaches classes that also qualify for early college credit.

Indianapolis-based national nonprofit Project Lead the Way is the leading provider of STEM education for middle and high school students.

Hobart schools Superintendent Peggy Buffington said Vermeulen is always on the cutting edge for innovation and helping students reach for that next design or creation.

"Their weather-balloon mission soars to space and lands exactly where they projected it to be is one such example," she said of a recent project that garnered publicity.

"Many of Brent’s students are already CAD-certified in high school. STEM is happening daily in his classes."

This is the second year Vermeulen's PLTW engineering design and development students launched a high-altitude balloon.

"It went up 100,000 feet," Vermeulen said. "It pops due to the pressure. It comes down, we don't know where it's going to come down. That was Nov. 4. We had an amateur radio tracker in it and a couple of cameras. We retrieved it in Kokomo, Indiana. The kids had to write up a grant proposal for the balloon launch."

In the integrated manufacturing class, you could hear the whir of a 3D printer in the back as students worked on solving a problem involving a toy train.

Students get jump on college majors

Senior Tré Montique, who plans to major in architecture or mechanical engineering, is taking two engineering courses this year.

"I'm learning more about manufacturing of products and the process they go through in manufacturing and how to use a variety of machines," he said.

"This all relates to what I want to do in college. We're going to build the train engine by using the 3D printer. We're trying to fix some problems with it right now, problems that have to do with the wheels."

That's one of the things Vermeulen wants his students to get out of the class — how to solve problems.

"Problem-solving and critical thinking are so important. That's what employers want. When you run into a problem, don't give up," he said.

Sophomore Fayth Roche said she started taking engineering classes as a seventh-grader, with the first class on robotics.

"In a PLTW class in eighth grade, I made a picture-frame key holder," she said.

"I still use it today. I love robotics and that's what I want to major in. There are not that many girls in the engineering classes. I was kind of nervous initially. They don't always recognize that I can do it. I think there are more expectations from me because I'm a girl. I work harder. Girls are capable of doing this."

Another interesting aspect of the classroom are the tools and other devices that have been taken apart and mounted on the classroom ceiling: an etch-a-sketch, a pellet gun and a brake system.

"It's a cool way for students to put their stamp on their program," Vermeulen said. "Sometimes the students come back to see if their projects are still up on the ceiling and look at the new projects."

Once students learn a skill like auto desk inventor, many of them take a test at the end of the school year and gain that certification. Vermeulen said most go on to college, but the certification allows them to be hired right out of high school.

Senior Caleb Choncoff said he's taken several engineering classes, and they are more fun than all the other "required" classes.

"This is fun. I've had almost all of the classes. It's genuinely engineering," he said.


Education reporter

Carmen is an award-winning journalist who has worked at The Times newspaper for 20 years. Before that she also had stints at The Clarion-Ledger in Jackson, Miss., The Post-Tribune and The News Dispatch in Michigan City.