Stepping into what is known as the MakerSpace at Lyme-Old Lyme High School (LOLHS), one hears the hum of machinery as a backdrop for the students poring over various engineering projects. In the “old days,” as teacher Bill Derry says with a grin, “this would have been known as the shop, or the guys in the basement.” The wide-open, brightly-lit room is organized and well-equipped. Along one wall, a gallery holds portraits of engineers who made the world a better place, names like Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, Steven Jobs, George Washington Carver, and Bill Gates, to name only a few.
Officially, the MakerSpace is home to the Technology and Engineering programs, which have grown through the past 20 years under the guidance and mentoring of both Derry and fellow Technology and Engineering teacher, Jon Goss.
Derry explains the progression. “When I first started teaching here, drafting was transitioning from T-squares and triangles to computerized design.” After working to get a computer lab into the school, Derry visited his brother’s school in New Hampshire and was introduced to the FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) Robotics Program. “This proved to be a game changer,” he says. “After a long search we were fortunate to find a sponsor—Millstone Power Station Dominion—which has been our sponsor for the whole time, and we got going with the program.” Simply explained, robotics is programming and writing code to get a machine to do something.
FIRST Robotics is a competition. The team is assigned a specific challenge and must build a robot to accomplish a set of goals to meet or exceed the challenge. “The robot is just a vehicle for us to gather around and teach kids how to go through the design process,” says Derry. “Of course, kids are competitive and used to playing games. They want their robot to be able to take on whatever the game challenge is.”
Jon Goss credits many sources for the amazing lab space at the high school. “This open space that we have, we had support from the community, the parents, and the Lyme-Old Lyme Education Foundation.”
Derry agrees. “What is unique about this program is that it brings the community into the school,” he says. “By that, I mean the human resources that come into the program.” Individuals who are mechanical engineers in their nine-to-five jobs, now come to the school in the evenings and on weekends to work with the students. “An in-house apprenticeship, if you will,” says Derry. That invaluable resource comes from places like Sikorsky, Electric Boat, Yale School of Engineering and AeroCision, among others.
“We have a diverse mix of students in our classes, and each brings his or her own talents to the program,” says Derry. “And we have a good number of girls—it’s not fifty-fifty, but we are working toward that goal. The girls we do have often take a leadership role…including team captain.”
One such student is Laura Wayland, a senior on the robotics team. Her smiling enthusiasm is clear. “I like experiencing the process of being able to work together as a team, and to be able to create something out of nothing,” she says. “Going to the competition and seeing the robot we built accomplish its goals is incredible. It’s really a satisfying experience.” Laura has taken both the CAD and Introduction to Engineering classes, and wants to expand her knowledge in CAD and SolidWorks, as well as the various machining tools the MakerSpace has available.
Laura’s current project is to design and build a completely wooden pendulum clock. “I’ve designed a gear train for it and have cut out a test of the gears to make sure they all work together,” she says. “It’s been a really cool project.”
Even more cool is that Laura was accepted Early Action at Yale University, her first college choice.
In those early years of the robotics program, the school also started the electric vehicle program, which is a similar design-challenge program. The students have to build a car that will hold a 180-pound driver, race around a track with a set of batteries, and do the maximum number of laps. Derry laughs. “Of course, it’s at Lime Rock Park, so it gets the kids excited,” he says.
Senior Hayden Hendrick likes everything about the classes. “You’re in here designing on the computer, then you’re out there making it,” he says. “You get to see your design go from start to finish and how it works.” Hayden has taken robotics since his freshman year, and now he’s involved in the electric car program. His grin is infectious. “We're working now to make a full car for the spring race.”
Jon Goss likes seeing the students engage in the design and construction process. “In traditional teaching, everyone is doing the same thing,” he says. “In the electric car class, every student has to work together as a member of a team, but they’re all doing something different. The essential question they try to answer is the same: how to engineer a solution to a problem. But each of their objectives are different; they each need to understand what the others are doing, but working independently.”
Two other students were equally enthusiastic about the programs. Sophomore Sarah Hayward participated in robotics in middle school, and now is making a 3-D printer prototype of a Ferris wheel. “I like that you can make anything from scratch,” she says. Ryan Ramella is a junior and part of the FIRST Robotics team. He likes doing CAD, and thinks it’s pretty cool to watch the machines cut out the designs. But he’s also enjoyed a practical feature of the class: “I’ve learned a lot of tips about using the equipment in the shop,” he says.
A number of students have gone on to major engineering schools like Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT), and others. According to Derry, there’s recognition on the college level that SAT and math scores are only part of the equation. “Kids who have hands-on experience are really the ones who excel at this design process, and are more likely to complete their four-year engineering program.
Gesturing toward two pieces of machining equipment, specifically a Computer Numerical Control (CNC) router called a Shop Bot, and a Tormach 3-axis-mill, Goss says, “A student right out of high school can get a job running one of these machines. Places like Electric Boat and AeroCision use these, as well as many colleges.”
The success of the Robotics and Industrial Design programs is evidenced by the stellar record of the FIRST Robotics team. The program gives the Chairman’s Award to teams that promote the program, and the LOLHS team won their first award four years into the program, then for the next seven years, finishing with a world championship in 2009.
Bill Derry frames that success with data. “Eighteen years ago, nobody knew what FIRST Robotics was and there were only about 300 teams,” he says. “Today, there are more than 3,000 teams and colleges have recognized this program to the point where 50 million dollars are available through scholarships.”
With all this wealth of opportunity, perhaps one
day the face of a Lyme-Old Lyme High School student will grace the gallery of famous engineers who changed the world.
Lyme-Old Lyme Public Schools accepts students from both communities, as well as tuition students. The high school offers 17 Advanced Placement courses, an award-winning STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) program, athletics, and more than 35 extracurricular clubs For more information on the academics and activites offered, visit region18.org.