Genoa Middle School’s engineering program continues to evolve to challenge students, teachers

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Keychains for family members. Custom-made chess boards. Puzzles with a beloved video game character. LED lamps featuring a variety of acrylic pieces, from Disney characters to sports logos. 

If Genoa Middle School students think it, they can make it in the school’s engineering lab. 

Through years of assessment and redesign, teachers Lee Smith and Bill Goldner have built an engineering program that empowers students to take ownership of their learning, challenge themselves and support their peers.

“We want our kids to build things but we expect them to know how to build things by following a set of directions,” Smith said. “It doesn’t work like that. We need to give our kids experiences of starting simple and moving into more complex projects with more complex pieces. When their projects turn out wrong, we don’t want to say, ‘You’ve finished it so you’re done now.’”

“We want to say, ‘What will it take to make it right? Go take care of it and make it happen.’”

Smith and Goldner have continued to evolve the program since partnering together four years ago, often looking for opportunities to grow both their students and themselves. 

Here’s how the program is currently designed: Smith and Goldner set a foundation with their seventh-graders, where they learn how to use the lab’s equipment through a variety of assigned projects. For instance, students create 3-D animals with the laser cutter, vinyl designs with the vinyl cutter and key chains with the 3-D printer.

They have the freedom to choose what they make as long as they meet the expectations of the assignment. With the laser cutter project, for instance, students can create one animal, an entire zoo or a detailed scene in the week they have to complete it. 

Seventh-graders also create a web page to document their work and highlight the process they used in designing and building each of their projects.

At the end of big assignments, Smith and Goldner will debrief with students as a group, asking them how they used communication, adaptability and other skills outlined in the district’s Portrait of a Graduate framework. 

“When we think about all the things you are learning here, it’s not just building things,” seventh-grader Evelyn Fossel said. “It’s also on the digital side and even how you communicate, work with others.”

She noted other Portrait of a Graduate traits she has exercised while working on assignments: critical thinking, problem solving and collaboration. She is also thinking outside of the box much more, an approach she brings to other classes.

Eighth-graders also learn about the program’s leaderboard system: Every project earns “experience points” based on a number of areas, from students’ documentation of their work to the variety of equipment and materials used. The more complex the project, the higher the point value.

The leaderboard, which is accessible to all engineering students, shows how eighth-graders are ranked based on their cumulative experience points. It also links to students’ web pages so those interested in learning how their peers scored can view their projects. 

Eighth-grader Ellie Robinson currently sits at the top of the leaderboard. She said she didn’t set out to be No. 1; she was more interested in designing items for her friends and family.

“I like to challenge myself,” said Robinson, whose projects have varied from keychains to vinyl decals for t-shirts. 

By the end of the semester course, seventh-graders are more familiar with the equipment and design process and can pursue their own projects.

But they don’t have to wait until eighth grade to take on more challenging designs. They can visit the engineering lab during study hall, identify a project and submit a proposal like eighth-graders do for their ideas. As soon as the younger students determine what they need to do, they have to work with an eighth-grader for assistance.

The opportunities for peer mentorship is an intentional component to Genoa’s program and helps build a community among students. Engineering classes are blended with seventh- and eighth-graders so the older students can support and help their younger peers who need help. 

“That’s the interesting, cool nature of this class,” Smith said. “I’m still sometimes needed because I have a wealth of fabrication knowledge and passing that on to the kids is that legacy piece we’re trying to build.”

Eighth-graders shape their engineering experience by their interests. 

Jack Latham has been juggling multiple projects this semester, from a custom-made chess board and pieces to an RC car. The eighth-grader recently finished a vinyl decal of the logo of his YouTube channel, which he ironed on a sweatshirt.

“If I work on one project for too long, I start to lose interest in a day or two so I work on the other ones,” he said.

Latham entered the class with an interest in studying architectural engineering after high school. Now, he is certain he’s on the right path after taking engineering at Genoa. 

“I’m pretty much doing my dream job right now,” he said. “I love this class. It’s pretty much a great start to the day. If you have a mistake, you always have friends next to you to help you through it.”

Smith said he spends the majority of his time talking to students, helping them figure out what they want, where they are going with their ideas and how they can accomplish them.

As a result, the complexity levels among projects has ramped up and teachers say they are seeing projects never done before in the lab. And students are finding solutions on their own for problems they are encountering in their projects. 

Smith recalled one student who needed specific colors for a vinyl sticker she was creating. The colors weren't available in the engineering lab so she cut the shapes she needed on white vinyl and used Sharpies to color them — creating a new technique that saves on material costs. 

Smith and Goldner are looking ahead to the next evolution of their program. They are developing a dashboard for their leaderboard system, automatically tracking metrics on the kinds of materials and equipment students are using for their projects as well as average production scores. 

They credit Principal Scott Gaddis for the role he played in helping Genoa’s engineering program evolve. 

“It is absolutely engaging to come here everyday and push ourselves beyond the edge of our professional abilities, creating the legacy of Genoa Engineering and we thank Scott Gaddis for believing in our professional goals and evolutionary ideas and for helping us to reach them,” they said. 

Thinking ahead, Smith and Goldner are investigating potential opportunities to integrate the design and presentation tools students work with in the Computer Science for Innovators & Makers class with the fabrication components of the engineering classes — adding another dimension of skills students can bring to their projects. 

With their engineering classes, students are building the hardware, Smith said. Through computer science and programming lessons, they can bring their designs to life. 

“Every day is an evolution here,” Smith said. “That’s what makes it neat. It’s a continuing, living organism that has no end.”