Wheeling High School is a nationally- and internationally-recognized suburban Chicago public high school that offers students a 21st-century focus in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) education. Our manufacturing program aims to help students connect their high school experiences to future goals and interests. So partnerships with manufacturing companies and associations like SME Education Foundation’s Partnership Response In Manufacturing Education (PRIME) program and NASA’s High School Students United With NASA to Create Hardware (HUNCH) program are an important part of our course work.
Integration into NASA HUNCH
Not many people get to say they helped design and manufacture hardware for NASA and the International Space Station (ISS)—let alone as a teenager. Yet, 16-year-old Logan Laudé, and other Wheeling High School students, are doing just that.
This real-world project is one of many that Laudé and his classmates work on, exposing them to the challenges modern-day manufacturers and engineers face while building their critical thinking, communication and collaboration skills. It’s also an example of how educators and industry partners are working together to build a pipeline of talent to help solve manufacturing’s shortage of skilled workers.
SME Education Foundation’s PRIME program and NASA’s HUNCH program formed a new partnership that will attract and introduce more high school students to career opportunities in the industry.
Wheeling is one of 15 PRIME high schools across the country—and the only one in Illinois—to be part of the initial launch of the PRIME/NASA HUNCH project, which will increase to over 40 schools when the program fully launches this coming fall and grow beyond that.
“Part of our mission is to help bridge the skills gap crisis,” said Josh Cramer, senior educational program officer for the SME Education Foundation. “We are growing these skills by providing these types of relevant projects.”
Building on Classroom Lessons
With the help of NASA mentors, students at Wheeling will manufacture handrail parts made from aluminum alloy and stainless steel to meet NASA’s exact specifications and measurements, all of which contain extremely tight tolerances and surface finishes.
On a recent day inside Wheeling’s manufacturing laboratory, students spent their time in class studying the technical drawings provided by NASA to identify what tooling would be necessary for them to machine all the features of their part. Students examined a 3D prototype and manipulated a solid CAD model while brainstorming the most efficient production options.
“It’s going to be extremely precise,” said Brian Rogers, an 18-year-old Wheeling student. “But just to be able to work on a project with a larger scope is cool.”
Students are applying their understanding of reading technical prints and adherence to tolerances and variation. They know that their parts must follow the exact NASA specifications for the handrail to be considered “within tolerance.” The components they produce must fit with the other parts being assembled across the country, another example of how the project gives students hands-on experience in a global industry.
“Our students have had plenty of prior experience solving these types of design challenges throughout the projects and content within our classes. Whether they know it or not, this challenge is a culmination of various skills learned throughout our engineering and manufacturing program,” said Kurt Fenzel, engineering and manufacturing instructor at Wheeling. “This collaboration with NASA and the SME Education Foundation definitely takes their knowledge to the next level, and prepares them for challenges faced in the real world.”
Partnering with Industry to Solve the Skills Shortage
Industry partnerships are not new to Wheeling, which has seen students pursue manufacturing careers right after graduation.
A decade ago, the then-principal of Wheeling High School met with manufacturers, business leaders and the local department of economic development to solve a growing crisis—the need for skilled workers in manufacturing.
At the time, local and regional manufacturing companies had been experiencing a dearth of qualified workers to meet the workforce demand. The answer, they believed, didn’t have to start in college. It could start in high school.
So, Wheeling High School forged a partnership to create curriculum and a state-of-the-art facility within the school’s walls that would expose students to the manufacturing industry, equip them with industry credentials, and prepare them for real-world opportunities.
Through the partnership, manual metalworking equipment, CNC machines, surface grinders, laser cutters, and precision measurement devices were brought into the school so students could learn how to operate industry-level machinery. At the same time, Wheeling introduced Project Lead The Way engineering courses, giving students another opportunity to gain additional real-world skills to prepare them for success after high school.
“These kinds of collaborations with industry partners ensure our curriculum is in line with industry standards and trends,” said Dan Weidner, the director of career and technical education for High School District 214, which includes Wheeling High School. “We want to build the next generation of manufacturers now, and give them the skills to be employable as soon as they graduate.”
With the support of SME Chapter 5–Chicagoland, Wheeling was designated as a PRIME school in 2011, which helped advance the school’s design and manufacturing program. The SME Education Foundation provided substantial funding to purchase additional equipment, tooling, and materials for the school’s manufacturing laboratory. It also enabled Wheeling to network with other PRIME schools and expand the sharing of curriculum and resources. Many industry connections and partnerships that define what Wheeling High School manufacturing is all about have spawned from the PRIME status and involvement.
Adding NASA’s HUNCH program to the equation is making an even greater impact on our students’ STEM education; it’s not every day the average citizen—let alone a high school student or teacher—can say they’re working on a project for NASA.
Having the chance to make products that will go into space is a once in a lifetime opportunity that our students will never forget, and we plan to make the most of it.