CLINTON — Jessica Flanagan is looking forward to her senior year at The Morgan School where she’ll be working on a catapult that can shoot melons across the river behind the school.
Flanagan said the catapult was inherited from former engineering classes, but still needs design modifications before it’s ready to launch the fleshy projectiles.
And that’s not the only project in the works by engineering students at Clinton’s public high school. In the lab on the bottom floor of the school, students are programming robots, engraving blocks of wood with lasers, and welding together the metal frame of a single-passenger race car.
“You can almost make anything you could think of in here,” said Larry Chapman, an engineering teacher at Morgan.
Clinton schools are making efforts to expand the manufacturing program as part of a collaboration between the district and local manufacturers intended to encourage students to consider jobs in manufacturing. The efforts are twofold — investing in new technology for the school lab and upgrading the curriculum in partnership with Goodwin University.
In 2019, Robert Werner, a member of the town’s Economic Development Commission, helped facilitate a partnership between Clinton schools and a group of seven manufacturers on the shoreline hoping that a better connection with local schools could help meet their need for skilled workers.
In a presentation to the coalition in January 2020, Connecticut Chief Manufacturing Officer Colin Cooper pointed out that 35 percent of manufacturing employees were over 55 years of age, and that each year between 2,000 and 4,000 positions go unfilled.
Assistant Superintendent Marco Famiglietti said that manufacturing offers opportunities for students looking for a viable career without following a four-year college path. The challenge, he said, is convincing the parents.
“There are a lot of kids who would rather not jump right into college. It scares parents,” he said. He added that the district was trying to “dispel the myth that manufacturing is dark, dirty and dangerous.”
Phil Williams, the president of Kenyon International Inc., which makes cooking products and electric grills, agreed that the rhetoric around manufacturing needed to change. He said that an entry-level position could pay $18 an hour, and provide a good living for someone who was willing to do the work.
“Manufacturing has had a black eye in the area as being a dirty job, a dead end … but we’ve seen just the opposite with the students we’ve brought in,” he said.
“You can’t make mistakes”
At Jared Eliot Middle School in Clinton, students get their first exposure to manufacturing, learning to work with hand tools and developing basic skills — how to use a hammer and a handsaw, how to tell the difference between a flathead and a phillips head screwdriver.
“You have a whole Do-It-Yourself market out there,” said Famiglietti,
Middle school was when Flanagan fell in love with the program. She said she’d always thought about going into medicine, but she “didn’t really like the idea of people dying around” her. Flanagan’s 7th grade math teacher suggested instead that she think about engineering.
She continued to take engineering-related classes when she went to high school, studying with Chapman in the lab and immersing herself in hands-on work.
“I love him as a teacher,” said Flanagan. “He helps us when we need it, but then he lets us go on our own.”
Chapman, for his part, said he doesn’t want to just tell the students what to build. Instead, he wants them to design their own projects, and to figure out for themselves how things work.
Famiglietti said that manufacturers want workers with skills in problem solving, math skills, and the ability to show up to work on time. He said that the student work also teaches the high schoolers about the importance of specificity and attention to detail. Although much of school is trial and error, he said, manufacturing requires precision.
“It literally makes or breaks the part. You can’t make mistakes when you are building parts for aircraft engines,” he said.
“Anything that shoots or throws”
Chapman knows which projects his students are most excited to build.
“Anything that shoots something or throws something,” he said..
But now, students have an increasing number of sophisticated machines at their disposal to make it happen.
Last year, the district received a Perkins Supplemental Grant, which funds initiatives in career and technical education, for $44,000. They used it to buy robotic arms, kits for building and programming drones, and a CNC router — a machine used in manufacturing to cut wood, metal and other materials.
Most of a second $49,000 Perkins grant which the school received this year, will be used to purchase a CNC milling machine for the high school. The machine, a manufacturing staple, can be programmed to cut through a block of raw material – for example, aluminum – to create parts for aircraft and cars, surgical implants and parts for the oil and gas industry.
The milling machine was also critical for the school to transition to offering Goodwin University courses. The three-year Goodwin curriculum focuses on skills like technical drawing, calibration, production systems, software and CNC machine use.
Famiglietti said the curriculum won’t be introduced before the 2022-2023 school year, to allow teachers necessary training, but once in place the new curriculum will allow students to earn college credit for their work.
He said that he expects the interest in the engineering courses to remain “strong.” At present, Famiglietti said that 92 students had signed up for Engineering One, 46 for Engineering Two and 13 for Engineering Three. But both Famiglietti and Chapman said they would like to encourage more female students to consider a manufacturing pathway. Chapman said the classes are currently about 20 percent female.
“The girls who come in here love it, but even getting them to come into the door here is a challenge,” said Chapman.
Chapman and Famiglietti said they were thinking about hosting a job fair with only women engineers.
Flanagan said she believes that girls have traits that are particularly useful in the manufacturing sphere, such as a tendency to be more collaborative and thoughtful.
“They consider things maybe more thoroughly. When problems present themselves, it’s easier to come up with different solutions,” she said.
In 2020, when the pandemic forced the lab shut down, Flanagan and her classmates shifted to computer-based work focused more on learning software programs necessary for design. Flanagan said the computer skills were helpful, but that she missed the hands-on experience.
In early 2021, students finally were able to return to the lab, and Flanagan said they managed to complete several projects during the spring, including soldering together a working radio and building “mousetrap cars” out of cardboard and mousetrap strings.
Last year, Flanagan also had the chance to intern at Bausch Advanced Technologies, where she worked for two hours every day after school. She is one of eight current and former Morgan students working or interning at the pharmaceutical and biotech manufacturer.
Flanagan said that she has worked with software, tested fill kits for intravenous lines and creating an assembly book listing manufacturing parts and components.
“I’m learning a lot here, and I really do enjoy it,” she said.
Flanagan said she wants to pursue biomedical engineering. She said that she probably will go on to college and take internships in the field along the way. But before that happens, there’s a catapult that needs to be fine-tuned. There are also some drones that she said she’s looking forward to programming.
Chapman said that next year he’s planning on his classes continuing work on the racecar, and having them participate in a state competition for robotics programming. He said that the program and the partnerships it enables is a great opportunity that benefits everyone involved.
“It’s one of those things that’s a win-win-win-win, no matter who you talk to,” he said.