It’s been a year since Polaris granted Forest Lake Area High School with nearly $80,000 in funds to use toward the purchase of manufacturing equipment. Since then, the machines have been slowly making their way into the school’s curriculum — and into the building itself in the newly named Polaris Design and Engineering Build Lab.

“The concept of the design lab is a phenomenal concept,” Forest Lake Area High School Principal Jim Caldwell said. That concept was originally developed by District Superintendent Steve Massey during his time as the high school principal prior to the 2015 bond referendum.

“That gave me the opportunity to spend time thinking and developing the concept,” Massey said. “The bond project enabled us to renovate our space so we could create a space where we could have that high-end equipment integrating engineering and design.”

Caldwell said that in recent years, the high school has focused a lot of its attention on providing opportunities for those who want to go into a skilled trade.

“Knowing that the pendulum always swings — ‘everybody goes to college’ or ‘everybody goes into career or technical education’ — we’ve spent the last three or four years of sustaining that pendulum. We’re doing a lot with college preparatory, but we’re also doing more with careers and tech ed,” Caldwell said.

That includes the hiring of former agriculture teacher Mike Miron to be the career and technical education coordinator, a position that oversees professional partnerships with businesses in the area, development for teachers, and the coordination of work-based learning experiences for students who wish to go into a skilled or technical trade. These work-based learning experiences can offer students real-world, hands-on experience where they can also earn wages while also earning high school credits.

“Having area businesses involved is important to the success of these programs,” Miron said.

The Minnesota Department of Labor recently awarded a grant for this purpose that is shared between the high school and Lakes Center for Youth and Families. The grant requires extensive coordination with the Department of Education to ensure student safety and adherence to child labor laws. The school was awarded a similar grant for the next two years and plans to continue using those funds to further develop working relationships between area businesses and employers in the trades to allow students hands-on experiences. The grant provides funds to the participating employers for training. It also pays for the program’s operating costs.

Those hands-on experiences, whether out in the field or working with the new Polaris technology, are what administration says is key to giving students options for what they want to do following high school and how to pursue those goals.

“The Polaris grant really afforded us the opportunity to bring a construction project full-circle and update a lot of those machines,” Caldwell said, noting that the old equipment included items like welders that were 60 years old.

The biggest purchases, however, were the computer numeric code machines. The “CNC machines” are an updated technology for a variety of machines that allows a user to implement computer code to numerically graph how the machine should move. For example, a CNC plasma cutter uses computer code to program the movement of a stream of hot plasma that can cut metal.

Several of those machines have already been assembled and are being utilized by students today, and Caldwell said a recent hire at the beginning of this school year has excited the department: Irv Geary, an industrial tech teacher who previously taught at North Branch Area High School.

“It’s really about getting the teachers excited, and by hiring Irv, we’ve excited the industrial tech department, because he has the experience,” Caldwell said.

Curriculum is being developed by the staff to utilize the machines and offer students in-depth and comprehensive classes. Forest Lake Area Schools director of teaching and learning Diane Giorgi said one of the new courses the staff has been working on is Engineering Design. It’s a course meant to be a capstone project in which students will have to utilize all the skills they’ve developed through working with metals, woods, and other materials to create and design a concept and see it through to its completion and testing.

“It does seem that a lot of high schools have gone more towards programming and doing things through 3D printing. And that’s the one thing we’ve been proud of here in Forest Lake is that we have kept the hands-on piece in place. … They go through the whole gamut instead of going sitting at a computer. I think that’s a big part of what’s the draw for our students, and we have many students going into the manufacturing — they don’t always equate sitting at a computer until they see how all the pieces fit together,” Giorgi said.

The Forest Lake Area School Board recently approved the Engineering Design course for the 2020-2021 school year. However, the process of implementing the course is not yet complete. Prior to the course proposal to the School Board, administration and teachers work to develop the course through a set procedure, including documentation of potential coursework and course outline. Once a course proposal is submitted, it must be signed off on by the high school administration and Giorgi and then brought to the School Board for approval. Once the board approves a course, more work follows to create a syllabus and course outline. If the course goes through significant changes during this process, the course must go back through the approval process before it can be implemented.

“I’m really excited for our students,” Giorgi said. “I think we’re always thinking of whether we’re meeting the needs of individual students, and we have many who work their way up to ninth grade, and they’re not thinking at all about college, and as soon as they think of some of these courses at higher level, like welding or woodworking, that might lead them to the next step. That might bring them into an area that they have a career they didn’t think would be an opportunity for them.”

Caldwell said the new technology and change in staff has excited not just the teachers, but the students as well.

“I had a group of students before Christmas wanting to start a club that designs things on the computer and then builds them. We’ve never had that before,” Caldwell said. “Because the teachers are getting excited about it, the kids are seeing how these things are connected.”

“There’s nothing greater for a student than developing the skills, but also developing the interest in high school so they pursue advanced training. It creates interest, passion, skill, and ultimately their career,” Massey said.

Hannah Davis is the Area Editor at the Forest Lake Times. You can contact her at hannah.davis@ecm-inc.com or (763)233-0709

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