Commonwealth Charter Academy building bridges from class to business

Alyssa Jackson
  • The cyber school gathered to learn more about building bridges.
  • Students competed to build the bridge that could withstand the most weight.

Students from Commonwealth Charter Academy came together recently in York County to work on building bridges from household items in an effort to interest the cyber school students in STEM careers.

Commonwealth Charter Academy students Stacie Lins, 15, of Delta, and Nolen Petrosky, 15, of Lancaster, gather materials to build model bridges during a STEM workshop at the York County 4-H Center in West Manchester Township, Wednesday, Oct. 5, 2016. Dawn J. Sagert photo

Each month, the public cyber school has a theme that is explored by the STEM conservatory and the humanities and arts conservatory by setting up workshops and speakers for the students to get hands-on experience. This month's STEM conservatory theme is "engineering and construction careers." Building bridges together was a way for students to explore engineering, architecture and other careers.

Jim Reist, a middle school special education teacher with the charter school, said the school organizes up to 500 field trips, workshops and speakers around the state each year to get members of the cyber school together and applying the information they learn in their online classes.

Commonwealth Charter Academy student Da'Sean Lewis, 11, of Steelton, Dauphin County, uses masking tape while working with his group to build a model bridge across two folding chairs during a STEM workshop at the York County 4-H Center in West Manchester Township, Wednesday, Oct. 5, 2016. Dawn J. Sagert photo

Students at the York County 4-H Center on Wednesday were enjoying the field trip and learning more about building bridges. Eleven-year-old Wyatt Ey, a sixth-grader in the public cyber charter school who lives in Lykens, Dauphin County, said he wants to be an engineer when he grows up, thanks to field trips such as this one. Wyatt and one of his group mates, Da'Sean Lewis, an 11-year-old seventh-grader from Steelton, Dauphin County, liked learning about the electricity involved with engineering and building.

"I liked the electrical parts and talking about solar power," Da'Sean said excitedly. "Maybe one day everything will be solar-powered." Da'Sean wants to be a lawyer, but he also wants to build solar panels at his future home.

Students of all age groups split into teams of four to six and worked together to build the strongest bridge they could in one hour. They had to use supplied materials, which included tape, Popsicle sticks, paper and string. They also had to have an energy source, such as a light or a fan, attached to the bridge.

Stacie Lyns, a 15-year-old 10th-grader from Delta, said she liked the trip because she already likes building things in her spare time.

"I like building with Legos, so it's kind of like that," she said. "You have to make sure all of the pieces are in the right place for it to work."

Kurt Amen, the STEM conservatory manager for Commonwealth Charter Academy, told the students they could only use the materials given to them because that's what solving real-life problems is like: You have to solve issues with whatever is handed to you. Amen explained that the public cyber school tries to connect students with role models in the field during the field trips.

"We want them to have experience in creativity and innovation," Amen said. "This is real-world problem-solving."

For this activity, a local engineer spoke with the students about the profession and the education it requires. Timothy Reist, a 23-year-old engineer who works with High Concrete Group LLC and formerly worked with High Steele Structures Inc., both organizations under High Industries Inc., talked with the students before they built their bridges.

Reist became involved with the trip through his father, Jim Reist. He said he hopes more students get involved with engineering and the hands-on workshop could expose them to topics they might not explore otherwise.

"There's lots of engineers," Timothy Reist said. "We need people who can do the calculations and the math, but we also need people who can actually go out and do the work. This is how we bring industry back to America."

Amen said that giving students at Commonwealth Charter Academy hands-on experience and mentors in the field, such as Reist, could encourage more students to go into STEM fields including modern agriculture, neuroscience, architecture and engineering. He said he believes this is one step in solving inequality.

"It's not just our school that needs to be pushing this. It needs to be a collaborative effort in all schools to expose STEM careers," Amen said. "We need to link business to education."