Mt. Abe wins grant that will help teach innovation

BRISTOL — Three Mount Abraham Union High School teachers are hoping their students can invent new technology while learning marketable job skills for high-paying industries. 
The Vermont Software Developers’ Alliance recently awarded the Mount Abe team — led by physics teacher Tom Tailer, computer-aided design teacher Paul Stetson and technology fabrication instructor Jim Brown — one of its first Bentley Awards. Named after one of the founders’ sons, the awards granted $3,000, three iPads and three $100 software gift certificates to three school projects across the state that “honor the spirit of invention and ensure students are prepared for a future of constantly changing technology and advancements in science,” as the organization states.
The other two schools that won Bentley Awards were Hinesburg Community Middle School, which has a project focused on astronomy, and Grafton Elementary School, which is studying geocaching.
Back in Bristol, the three Mount Abe educators were surrounded by high-tech machinery and student inventions in Brown’s room as they discussed their visionary project.
One of the project’s chief goals is to revolutionize pellet stoves so that they don’t rely solely on electricity and can contribute to a family’s hot water supply. The money will go to buying junk pellet stoves and reverse engineering them to be machine-driven by crank or other wind-up device. That way, they’ll be able to run for several hours without an electrical input. The teachers also want to run a copper water pipe through the stove and into a hot-water tank; water run through the pipe would be heated and available for the homeowner’s use.
This change, said Tailer, who is an expert on pellet stoves, could make them more reliable and more affordable.
The idea behind this project, however, isn’t just to create an enhanced pellet stove; it also aims to teach high school students critical job skills. From Silicon Valley to Champlain Valley, engineers are in high demand among employers.
“The goal is to prepare students for life in industry and life in commerce, and to do that effectively, they need to be able to do what the three of us teach,” said Tailer. “Whenever I go into (Stetson’s) class, I see students being prepared with job skills that are incredibly marketable. If they master what he’s teaching, they can go directly into an industry and get a job.”
While cultivating critical computer, science and mechanical skills, the students will also learn to collaborate, said Brown.
“Tom’s kids would say, ‘OK, we know that in order to heat this big of a room with this mechanical thing, we need this much energy to drive this,’” said Brown. “So his kids would research that. Then we know what part we need and we go to Paul’s class to come up with a design to put this part into the stove. Then, once we’ve got the drawings it comes here and we build it.”
The iPads will be used for research, design, testing and documentation. The documentation part, said Tailer, will be key to helping others learn from this project, too. He wants the students to make YouTube videos about their findings to share the lessons they learn with the world.
Tailer thinks the project will spark the interest of many students and engage them in learning about physics, computer-aided design and technology fabrication.
“My guess is we’ll get some kids hooked on this project,” he said. “The first time you see a burn (chamber) working, it looks like a jet engine. Seeing 40,000-50,000 BTUs an hour coming out of a fairly small area is pretty impressive.”
Brown agreed with Tailer.
“When the students see something they’re excited about, they just run with it,” he chimed. “And they can’t stop.”
Reporter Andrew Stein is at [email protected]

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