Picayune’s Vo-Tech offers up-to-date class

Published 4:13 pm Thursday, November 8, 2012

Students at Picayune Memorial High School will have access to a more up to date class that could prompt an interest in an engineering or technological field.

The change will involve dropping the Technical Applications class and change it to Robotics and Engineering, said Vo-Tech teacher Todd Giglio.

Not only is the name of the class changing, but many aspects of the class will be upgraded, including the addition of 3D printers, Vex robot kits, a laser engraver and a state of the art milling machine, said Giglio. Every one of those pieces of hardware is hooked to computers the students will use to create parts or items through the use of software.

Changes to the course and addition of equipment were possible in part due to a $150,000 federally funded grant that the Vo-Tech’s director, Christie Pinero, applied for, Giglio said.

Each lesson in the new class will be computer driven, either though course material stored on the class’ in-house server or over the Internet, said Magee Enterprises Regional Sales Manager Mike Thomas. Thomas said Magee Enterprises won the bid to install the hardware for the course change.

Course modules will provide students with problems that must be solved on the computer before being put into practical application by using either a robot from the Vex kit or by creating a part with the milling machine or through the 3D printer, Thomas said.

Programming the Vex robot will require simple, autonomous commands to the on-board memory through the USB port. Autonomous commands can include driving forward or turning, or the students can drive the robot manually with a video game inspired controller, Thomas said.

“It’s all physics, but (the students) don’t realize it’s physics,” Thomas said.

Seven schools in Mississippi are in the process of setting up the program, which includes a two-day instructional course such as the one that was held at Picayune’s Vo-Tech earlier this week. In addition to Picayune’s Vo-Tech, the other six schools are in Lamar County, Hattiesburg, Brookhaven, Biloxi, New Albany and Jefferson Davis County, Thomas said. Each school had to apply for the grant. Once approved, the school decides how to use the funds to purchase materials and hardware needed for the instruction.

Each year seven schools are selected for the grant set up by the legislature, but more than seven always apply, Thomas said. Once a school is awarded the grant, it takes over the responsibility of funding the course. However, Thomas said he is working with legislators to update equipment at schools with outdated technology with more grant money. In the four years of grant funding, similar courses have been set up in 28 schools across the state, Thomas said.

Picayune was the only school to purchase a laser engraver this year with its grant, Thomas said. Giglio said the machine is capable of engraving on most any surface, be it wood, plastic, metal or glass. The hardware is even capable of cutting precision parts out of a sheet of plastic, Giglio said.

The curriculum will provide students hands-on experience with robotics and engineering, but Giglio said it also will include writing, math, science and reading comprehension, helping students to see how academic instruction transfers into hands-on experience. One example involves the use of the 3D printer. Typically it is difficult for students to comprehend the need for x, y and z in math, but when they put those figures to use in using the 3D printer, the need for three axes is apparent, Giglio said.

Giglio hopes the new course will be a feeder for the county’s Robotics Team, which participates in yearly NASA-funded FIRST competitions.