Kids become ‘makers’ in electronics club

MIDDLBURY — Zach Bechhoeffer is only 18, but he can already lay claim to being a visionary of sorts. It was in 2011 when Bechhoeffer, then a Middlebury Union High School freshman, called for creation of an electronics club at the Patricia A. Hannaford Career Center.
Three years later, that club of one has grown to more than a dozen very inquisitive students who twice each week crowd into the career center’s science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) classroom to learn a new language and imagine some of tomorrow’s technology. The new language is computer-aided design, which some of the club members are using to set the center’s two 3-D printers into motion designing objects ranging from sugarhouse models to replacement bolts for everyday machinery.
“I guess I was a test subject; a guinea pig of sorts,” Bechhoeffer, now a senior, said on Tuesday of his founding role in the club. “I’ve tried to nurture it as much as I can.”
The club — and indeed the career center’s blossoming STEM Academy — got another shot in the arm last week with the award of an $8,000 state grant to expand existing program resources and create a “Mini-Maker space” within the school.
A “Maker Space” is a learning environment that serves as a gathering point for students to access tools, materials, projects, mentors and expertise. “Making” is the result of this gathering, where students use new technologies and basic tools to do real and personally meaningful work. It is hoped that instilling a spirit of “making” in youngsters will prepare them for careers that use 21st-century technologies.
Jackson Burnham, lead instructor of the STEM program, said the Vermont Department of Education grant will provide the Mini-Maker space with desktop 3-D printers, soldering stations, a vinyl cutter, and Arduino hardware dedicated to robotics and programming. The club is now big enough and adequately outfitted to compete in statewide and regional competitions in robotics and other technology disciplines.
“(The new equipment) will enable students to engage in an active learning environment relevant to the innovation demands of tomorrow’s economic opportunities,” said Burnham, who teaches engineering and architecture courses. “These new technologies will benefit students in all programs at the career center, and provide exceptional possibilities for the students in our afterschool clubs.”
Several students in the electronics club are attending “Code School” when the group convenes each Tuesday and Thursday from 3 to 4:30 p.m. Coding is the language of electronics. Those who successfully complete the 10-week program will earn a free laptop computer, thus further whetting their appetites for possible careers in computer science, engineering or architecture.
“This whole movement to ‘making’ has been going on a long time,” Burnham said on Tuesday during an interview in the career center’s STEM Academy headquarters.
Students arrive jazzed to work with the 3-D, computer-controlled printers, according to Burnham, devices that are playing a growing role in manufacturing industries throughout the world. Burnham said there is a shoe store in Brooklyn, N.Y., that is selling shoes made with a 3-D printer. A very large 3-D printer is making an entire house in Amsterdam, the Netherlands.
Here’s how the printers work: A coil of polylactic acid — which has the look and consistency of heavy fishing line — is heated within the printer and extruded through a tip onto a platform, in a three-dimensional design that has been uploaded from a computer.
“We are really just at the introductory level of what is achievable,” Burnham said of the potential of the technology.
Burnham said most members of the electronics club would be in the lab five days a week if they could. Burnham mentors the program on his own time after his regular classroom responsibilities. He gets an occasional hand from some of the talented, science-oriented students at Middlebury College. Tuesday saw college students Patrick Tang and Jewel Chen helping club members get started on their diverse projects.
The enthusiasm exhibited by club members has been inspiring. The activities have filled a void for some students who don’t gravitate toward the conventional extracurricular activities.
“The maker movement is finally giving credit to the tinkerers, and sometimes the big thinkers — what your traditional high school hallway might classify as a ‘nerd,’” Burnham said. “It’s an outlet that doesn’t look like the traditional afterschool sports program or chess club. It’s a place for anyone who is curious about design, who has ever doodled in class. Doodling is kind of the start of innovation, communicating the relative unknown idea to a visual little petri dish.”
Burnham, through his teaching and mentorship of the electronics club, has given plenty of local students food for thought as they consider higher education and careers. The career center serves students from the Addison Central, Addison Northeast and Addison Northwest supervisory unions.
Maia Parsons, a 16-year-old junior at MUHS, gravitated toward the electronics club because she has always been intrigued by computers and wants to learn more about how to use them. She is also a student in Burnham’s STEM class.
Parsons is also an artist, and would like to marry that talent with the computer world.
“It’s really exciting,” she said of the opportunities that the STEM Academy and the electronics club are affording her. “I love every minute of it.”
Meanwhile, the originator of the electronics club is in the last year of his high school career and is also thinking about his future. Bechhoeffer is taking an advanced engineering class at the Hannaford Career Center, focusing on management of computer servers, including programming electrical circuitry and micro-controllers. He hopes to attend college in New England, perhaps majoring in computer science.
He said he will look back with fondness on his experiences at the career center.
“Being in this club has broadened my interests, rather than narrowed them,” Bechhoeffer said.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].
PATRICIA A. HANNAFORD Career Center teacher Jake Burnham mentors a blossoming electronics club that recently received an $8,000 grant to buy equipment for the creation of a “mini makers” space in the center. / Independent photo/Trent Campbell

Share this story:

More News
News Uncategorized

Fresh Air Fund youths returning to county

The Fresh Air Fund, initiated in 1877 to give kids from New York City the opportunity to e … (read more)

Obituaries Uncategorized

Mark A. Nelson of Bristol

BRISTOL — A memorial service for Mark A. Nelson of Bristol will be held 1 p.m. on Saturday … (read more)

Sports Uncategorized

High school athletes ready for fall playoffs this week

See when your favorite high school team is competing in the fall sports playoffs.

Share this story: