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Courses lead the way into engineering and computer science

Building robotics and coding apps taught through new curriculum

As today’s technology gets into the hands of younger and younger kids, a high school class of coders looks extremely natural creating an app.

In a recent Kenowa Hills computer science class led by teacher Ed Beickman, the students catch on quickly while coding android apps.

“They started off the school year designing games and are now doing a survey taker app,” said Beickman, in his second year teaching at Kenowa Hills, but first year using  Project Lead the Way, a national program that offers curriculum, training and resources for STEM-related courses. “We’re now designing an app that serves a purpose, makes your life or job easier: purposed based programming.”

Junior Kyle Ngyuen works on an engineering assignment in Ed Beickman’s class

His courses themselves could be called purpose-based. They aim to encourage project-based learning, problem-solving, critical and creative thinking, communication and student collaboration, he said.

The courses began with Beickman attending two weeks of class at the University of Minnesota last summer as a requirement for Kenowa Hills to offer classes through PLTW. He’s the only PLTW trained and certified teacher at his school.

Beickman estimated about 250 K-12 teachers from around the U.S. learned curriculum for many different PTLW courses in the summer session. 

“I made some great contacts with teachers in other states who I have communicated with throughout the school year to compare our courses, what is working, or what things we might have changed,” he said. “It was a great experience to work through just about every project that we will have our students work on throughout the class.”

So far, students say the classes are working great for them.

“I like working with machines and coding, and like making my own things with 3D printers,” said junior Kyle Nguyen, whose interest sparked in the seventh grade.

Ed Beickman’s computer science class codes as a group

A Geek for Technology  

For Beickman, the classes offer a chance to combine his love for technology with the new approaches of Project Lead the Way. He served in the Army and Reserves before becoming a mechanical designer and then working in the aerospace field.

Beickman said he loves to take things apart to see how they work.

“I am definitely a geek when it comes to technology and love trying new technology to see how it might help me, my classes or my students,” said Beickman, who has a bachelor’s degree in mathematics and a master’s in education administration. “My background in mathematics and trying to create ways to show students the application of math has always led me to technology, coding and engineering.

“Having the opportunity to build this program at Kenowa Hills is something I am extremely passionate about and hope that it attracts more students to our schools in the future.”

He said they opted to offer Introduction to Engineering Design and Computer Science Essentials for their first year with PLTW. The engineering course focuses on sketching and drawing, measurements and statistics, reverse engineering, documentation, computer modeling and working in a design team. Computer Science Essentials is a first course in computer science for students with some or no experience.

Project Lead the Way created the curriculum for and provides supplies and resources for both courses.

“There is a set curriculum that we can follow, but the curriculum does allow the teachers to adjust/modify to create meaningful projects for our students,” he explained.

Sophomore Michael Trent Chambers leads the class through coding an android app

Working with Customers in Mind 

Students start off building apps using a platform called MIT App Inventor, giving students  many opportunities to research and code apps that they have an interest in or passion for, Beickman said. Later in the course, students use an autonomous vehicle from Vex Robotics (built for the Computer Science Essentials class) to transition from block-based to text-based programming, he said.

Beickman said through both courses the students are continually working within the Design Thinking model, looking at what they can do to improve a product or meet a customer’s needs and communicating with all of the stakeholders that exist for the project.

Assistant Superintendent Mike Burde said PLTW courses have helped the district emphasize the skills and dispositions their learners need for life after high school.

“Complex thinking and problem solving, communication and collaboration, 

and most importantly, the capacity to be an impactful citizen, are all foundational in our PLTW courses,” Burde said.

Engineering projects on display in Ed Beickman’s classroom

Students are Into It 

“From the feedback I’m receiving, the students are enjoying the classes,” Beickman said. “They are not easy courses by any means, so there was a little bit of a struggle for some students at the start.

“Like anything, we work with the students to help them understand how a particular process works, guide them to achieve success in small increments, and before you know it, they are off and running on their own and helping others.”

Senior Teak Brown, who took Algebra II with Beickman last year, is now enjoying computer science and engineering.

“He’s an amazing teacher,” said Teak, who always had an interest in computer science and programming. “It’s insane how quality of a teacher he is.”

Sophomore Michael Trent Chambers, in his first class with Beickman, said the class has been helpful learning how to code.

“It’s helping me out with how coding is supposed to work,” Michael Trent said. “He’s definitely good at what he does.”

College Credit in the Works

Since the classes are electives, any student can sign up for them, with the potential of earning college credit in the future.

“We are working to align the courses with GRCC for dual credit for our students,” Beickman said. “The dual credit is something that we are aiming for next school year.”

He said he encourages students with no prior experience to take either course, but expects that some next year will take courses on principles of engineering or cybersecurity.

“My goal is that every student has an opportunity to gain some exposure to engineering and/or computer science prior to graduating from Kenowa Hills,” he added, “and hopefully be better prepared to make decisions on where they want to go next; whether that’s in the workforce, technical/trade school or continuing their education.”

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Cris Greer
Cris Greer
For more than three decades, Cris Greer has been a wordsmith, working in the fields of journalism, advertising and marketing. Much of the past decade, he helped grow the MLive Statewide High School Sports desk as a supervisor, editor and reporter, which included eight newspapers in Michigan and mlive.com. Cris also was a freelancer for The Grand Rapids Press, The Advance and On the Town magazine for many years. A good portion of his early career was spent building and managing the copywriting team in the advertising department at Meijer, Inc., where he oversaw copywriting for print ads, mailers, brochures, signage, several dozen in-house magazines per year and much more.

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