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Confidence Takes Flight in Engineering Technology

Kids watching demonstrationAs each Styrofoam aircraft took flight, the seventh-grade students erupted into cheers. The North Salem Middle/High School engineering technology lab was buzzing with excitement as students tested their handmade airplanes' flight capability with a small electric propeller. When a plane wobbled or struggled to get off the ground, classmates offered adjustments and support. 

Nearby, other students eagerly started their next project, building hydraulically-controlled wooden arms for an upcoming robot battle. Each class period featured different projects, from simple shelves with interchangeable parts to wind-powered boats that levitate over a magnetic track.

"I had to adjust the boat parts multiple times," said sixth-grader Vincent as he continued to adjust his boat's sail. "Getting it to race down the track feels stressful, but in the end, when it works, it's fun."

Engineering technology teacher Ron Hendrie gathered the sixth-grade students in a huddle to give boat racing tips and encouraged them to find success by focusing on the sail's shape, size, and location. "Don't hope to stumble on the right answer; isolate and change one variable at a time," he said.

Hendrie often brings his students together to demonstrate a new tool and discuss techniques or physics concepts, then with an "OK, back to work!" the students disperse to put his advice into action.

"This class really makes you think about your decisions, like what to put on something, where to move something," said sixth-grader Charlie. "It takes a lot of focus."

Over Hendrie's long teaching career, he has updated the equipment and the courses, shifting the focus from industrial arts to technology and inventing new engineering challenges. Earlier this year, the school installed a new computerized cutting machine donated by the North Salem Foundation for Learning and the Parent-Teacher Organization. His students thrive with the independence of guided discovery, allowing younger students to draw inspiration from older students and encouraging an exchange of ideas among all students.

"It's a completely different learning environment here. We have the freedom to plan our own projects for the year," said Amanda, a senior taking Engineering 2. "There's so much creative freedom that we can take. Everyone's project is a completely different take, even though we all start with the same rubric."

Amanda and her classmate Skylar are building a pinball machine with a cartoon theme. Amanda focuses on the physical elements, like the ball launcher and a spinning dinner plate. Skylar tackles the electrical components, incorporating a Raspberry Pi to program moving parts, lights, and scoring.

"I'm learning life skills, the mechanical side of things that I don't think I would've learned otherwise," said Amanda, who found that her engineering and physics classes complement each other and help her better understand the concepts. "I used my skills to build an outdoor mud kitchen to earn my Girl Scout Gold Award project."

"Every year, we start with material processing and learning how to use the tools; then the students can apply those skills to a problem," said Hendrie. "I aim for them to be as independent as possible and build on their skills every year."

"If you ask Mr. Hendrie for help, he'll help you. But if he knows you can do it, he'll encourage you to figure it out." said junior Katerin, who chose to spend her study hall assembling a box for her woodworking course. "It builds up my confidence because he has that confidence in us."