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This is Learning That’s as Real-world As it Gets

Sydney Morrow studiously draws a file over a tin can, smoothing down drilled-out holes around its perimeter. The sounds of other students drilling, filing and hammering surround her, along with the electric whirring and buzzing of the factory she’s working in.

Sydney’s at a work station with five other students, making a backpacker’s camp stove according to instructions projected on a screen. It’s a humble project, but here at Knights STEM Academy, the larger aim is to help prepare Sydney for the workforce by attending class in a workplace.

“It feels more like real-world stuff,” the Kenowa Hills High School sophomore says of her class located in a light-industrial park. “It’s not like you sit down and get lectured. It’s all hands-on.”

Indeed. She and about 45 classmates all have their hands on tools as they work in a long corridor of desks, computers and work tables. Through the windows of a low wall, they can see workers on the other side making metal food trailers. They’re in the factory of MOVE Systems, which supplies the street food carts being built by DeWys Manufacturing.

Both firms are partners in the school launched this fall, to give students a taste of the work world while building their skills in STEM – science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

“The kids get to smell and hear and taste all the different (aspects) of a manufacturing environment,” says John DeWys, president of DeWys Manufacturing, which donated the academy’s classroom space.

Eleanor VanderHart concentrates on shaping the bottom of her camp stove

Industrial Arts 10.0

With about 90 students enrolled – mostly seventh- and ninth-graders and a few sophomores — the academy is built to accommodate up to 200 in grades 7-10 next year. It emerged from an effort to better prepare students for career and technical education, and get them thinking at an earlier age about possible pathways to career and college, said Assistant Superintendent Michael Burde.

“We want students to know themselves as learners so they can figure out where their strengths and interests lie,” Burde says. “What are they passionate about? By the time they leave this program they should be able to answer that question confidently.”

The school district collaborated with DeWys, MOVE Systems and other businesses including Herman Miller, which provided furniture for the custom-built classroom space. For MOVE, which supplies environmentally friendly food carts for New York City, it’s a way to help “train the workforce of tomorrow,” says President and CEO James Meeks.

By seeing workers through the windows, students can sense “how the type of creativity they’re learning in school can translate into a life” of STEM-related fields — James Meeks, President and CEO, MOVE Systems

“It’s one thing to be in four walls of a school,” Meeks says. “It’s another to be in the middle of a living organism that is actually producing the fruits of what STEM can provide.” By seeing workers through the windows, students can sense “how the type of creativity they’re learning in school can translate into a life” of STEM-related fields, he says, adding he hopes to talk to students about career options.

Trevor Molina says STEM Academy is “a lot more interesting” than a normal classroom

Students attend two hours a day, earning credits in math, science, and even visual arts and foreign language for STEM’s lingo and design skills. For the high school class, teachers Mike Johnson and Ray Byle will have them build a 3-D printer, water filters and other devices.

On a recent morning with students making the wood-burning backpack stoves, it looks like old-school shop class meets millennial high-tech. Students scatter to work stations each equipped with a speaker to communicate to the teachers. Even with all the background noise, it beats sitting in a classroom, they say.

“It’s very different. You have to be aware of everything,” says Trevor Molina, who’s into robotics and engineering. “You have to be listening, especially with everybody else working over there” in the factory.

“It’s a little weird, but once you’ve been here a while you really don’t notice it that much,” Brendan Ashton says of the clamor.

Most say they much prefer making things to sitting in a classroom.

“It probably won’t be what I want to do when I grow up, but it’s just a fun class,” says Oliver Reyes, who’d like to be a doctor. “This is how my dad taught me to do things.”


Knights STEM Academy

MOVE Systems

DeWys Manufacturing

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Charles Honey
Charles Honey
Charles Honey is editor-in-chief of SNN, and covers series and issues stories for all districts. As a reporter for The Grand Rapids Press/mLive from 1985 to 2009, his beats included Grand Rapids Public Schools, local colleges and education issues. Honey served as editor of The Press’ award-winning Religion section for 15 years and its columnist for 20. His freelance articles have appeared in Christianity Today, Religion News Service and Faith & Leadership magazine. Read Charles' full bio


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