Middle Schoolers Display Projects at American Axle

american axle
Vicksburg 7th graders Reed Tassell, Brendan Kelly, and N.J. Topash show off their robotic engineering projects at American Axle.

By Travis Smola

Project Lead the Way (PLTW), a science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) program at Vicksburg schools, recently exposed seventh grade students to real-world careers available in these fields with a visit to American Axle & Manufacturing in Three Rivers.

The visit included a tour of the factory floor. Students brought with them a variety of engineering and robotics projects they’ve been working on since January to share with the employees. American Axle has been a supporter of Lead the Way since the beginning. Debra Kolberg, STEM teacher consultant project manager at KRESA, helped organize the event. The projects the students presented ranged from simple pull toys and robots programmed to perform simple tasks to orthotics designed for someone with cerebral palsy.

“They learn in the way that they learn best, which is by doing,” Kolberg said. “They’re very excited about it.”

Seventh-grader N.J. Topash built a robotic dragster he programmed to travel a certain distance before stopping. He excitedly explained to the engineers what he learned about gear ratios. The project also helped him learn about one key element engineers deal with every day. “I learned that timing is key to everything,” Topash said. “You can have something that works, but the timing, if that’s off, it will make everything off.”

One of the major ideas behind Project Lead the Way is simply to show students career options. These options don’t always have to focus on further education after high school. Kolberg said American Axle serves as a good example of the options available because it hires workers with high school diplomas and those with four-year college degrees.

PLTW has a heavy focus on critical thinking, communication, collaboration and problem solving that will be useful to the students no matter what they end up doing. “Since we don’t know the future, when these kids get up to the working age, we don’t even know what kind of jobs there will be when they’re here,” Kolberg said. “What they need more than head knowledge is skills.”

Teacher JoEllen Pollack agreed. She previously worked on PLTW at Climax-Scotts before coming to Vicksburg. “What we’re trying to do for the middle schoolers is to get them excited about engineering,” Pollack said. She noted the students learn valuable skills like coding, mathematics and science, but soft skills like problem-solving and teamwork may be even more valuable.

She said members of a group often have different ideas about what they’ll do for their project. They then go through a design process where all the pros and cons are weighed before work ever begins. “It’s a way of learning through interaction and play and cooperative learning, doing rather than just memorizing facts,” Pollack said. She also said she’s hopeful other local businesses will want to do similar events with PLTW.

“I think this is what inspired what I want to be now,” Clara Centofanti said. The seventh grader is an aspiring engineer. She’s not sure what she wants to specialize in, but the visit gave her a chance to explore more real-world options. She said it was encouraging to see how the things she is learning now can apply to a real-world career in the future.

“You see a truck, or a car and you think ‘Oh, that’s just something I use,’” Centofanti said. “But now you get to see the real science and technology and engineering behind it.”

American Axle employees were equally impressed by the projects the students came up with. Brian McDaniel, Senior Manager of Human Resources, challenged the students to build an axle for next year and a robot that could throw foam stress cubes the company gave to the students.

Manufacturing Manager Mike Waldrop, also impressed, said the students were displaying knowledge and skills he didn’t learn until four to five years later in high school. “By the time they hit college, they’ll be way beyond where we were 30-plus years ago,” Waldrop said. “For the future of the company, opportunity for local kids who may want to stay in the area, it’s excellent. Anything we can do to help support it is great. I enjoy seeing these kids come in and help demonstrate what they know.”

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