The Ceres High School crew

A decade ago, Ceres High School (CHS) in Ceres, Calif. decided it had a problem. Administrators recognized 95 percent of the curricula was dedicated to preparing students for college, but the harsh reality was only a third of the students were likely to continue their education beyond a high school diploma. The local job market, economic conditions and the rising cost of college tuition were perpetuating a need to think outside the box in terms of preparing students for life after graduation.

The concern bloomed into an understanding that more advanced and practical skills should be offered as electives covering subjects that would otherwise only be learned in universities, trade schools or via on-the-job training. CHS officials spoke to local manufacturing businesses in order to gain specific knowledge of the abilities companies sought in future employees. As a result, in 2008, Ceres High School discontinued its Wood Shop class and one of the state's first STEM programs was born.

It didn't happen overnight. Ceres Unified School District has secured bond and state grant funding, building a multi-million dollar California Partnership Academy – a career-focused school within the high school partnered with local business advisors. The corporate help grew into a continuing group of companies providing real-world mentoring and facility visits. It's a symbiotic relationship between the school district and local manufacturers. Businesses need employees with the right skills and work ethic. The school provides a curriculum preparing students to immediately enter the local job market or have a leg up on a college major in a field pertinent to today's workforce. Participating enterprises include:

  • E. & J. Gallo Winery
  • Select Harvest U.S.A.
  • Parker Hannifin Racor
  • Seneca Foods
  • Frito Lay, Modesto
  • Kohl's Distribution Center, Patterson
  • Stanislaus Alliance Worknet
  • Stanislaus Business Alliance
  • G3 Enterprises
  • Almond Board of California
  • Flory Industries
  • Hilmar Cheese Factory
  • Process Resources
  • American Recycling
  • The Wine Group
  • Bronco Winery
  • Craig Safety Group
  • GRID Alternatives

A number of Ceres graduates land with these and other employers after graduation. It's a stellar example of cooperation between local education and business. In the spring of 2016, a county-wide effort known as the Gateway to Industry Program was established in collaboration with E. & J. Gallo Winery, an original CHS Manufacturing Production and Green Technology (MPGT) Academy supporter. It is used at the California Department of Education as an example for ready workforce programs. Students who successfully complete the program are provided a certificate and asked to apply for a paid internship. Those selected for employment earn between $15 and $19 dollars per hour. Those not selected are fast-tracked through the County Careers In Manufacturing program with starting wages between $14 and $16 per hour.

CHS MPGT Academy students in mock interviews with corporate partners.

In 2016, the CHS MPGT Academy was named one of the seven best California Partnership Academies out of 409 in the state. It was the first year such an honor was bestowed and Ceres is the only manufacturing academy with the distinction. Most schools with partnership academies focus on education, criminal justice, agriculture, health and other professional trades.

The Ceres Academy was also recognized for manufacturing leadership in education as a Lighthouse Program, an example for other academies statewide providing mentorship, recommendations and guidance. It is one of only 19 Partnership Academies bearing the Lighthouse label and has hosted local legislators, state senators, US Congressman Jeff Denham and State Superintendent of Schools, Tom Torlakson.

Leading the charge is Chris Van Meter, Manufacturing and Green Energy Academy Teacher at Ceres High School. A purple heart recipient and decorated veteran having served 21.5 years in theaters such as Bosnia, the Balkans and Iraq, he somehow managed to simultaneously earn a degree in Physics and gain his teaching credentials. Prior to his current position at Ceres, he taught classes in Math, Chemistry and Physics. He was awarded 2016-2017 Teacher of the Year by California State Senator Anthony Cannella.

Chris Van Meter receiving his 2016-2017 Teacher of the Year Award. Photo by Steven Tomao.

Some assume 3D printing itself should be a class. This is questionable thinking at best. Teaching a STEM student to use a 3D printer is like teaching a writing student to use a 2D inkjet. STEM involves more than kids knowing how to operate computer-controlled machinery. It means teaching them why they need it.

Having recently added 16 UP mini 2s to the academy's collection of more than 60 3D printers, we jumped at the opportunity to interview an educator so heavily involved in the implementation and usage of 3D printing in a STEM environment.

"I only devote a week to 'turning on' and operating a 3D printer every year. All classes have refresher instruction and certification at the beginning in conjunction with another week of Shop Safety," says Van Meter.

With only two weeks dedicated to learning about 3D printing and safety, how is the remainder of class time spent?

"A strong focus is the six to eight weeks of SolidWorks CAD where students are expected to design an object and then rapid prototype it at multiple steps – 14 designs that scaffold CAD Skills. Several of these designs represent practical everyday objects. Another six to eight weeks is devoted to robotics where students design and manufacture their own gears, which are 3D printed," says Van Meter. "Combined with other projects, the students are expected to utilize the printers in at least 70% of the curriculum during 10th grade."

After the initial 3D printing and CAD training, students are allowed to employ the printers at their leisure, which means they are running virtually all the time. This explains why the academy needs so many 3D printers.

According to Van Meter, "This is the brilliant part. After these steps, students utilize the machines non-stop for various personal and other classroom projects – History, Science, English, etc., so they are applying what they've learned to other subjects. They also make gifts for other students. This promotes the creativity, imagination, lifetime playfulness and intrigue every engineer needs in order to be successful. It continues throughout their 11th and 12th grade years."

The strategy clearly addresses the core purpose of STEM – developing the next generation of scientists, technologists, engineers and mathematicians – an educational incubator for tomorrow's inventors and producers. At the local level, the CHS MPGT Academy is about jobs, but the macro goal is to keep the nation competitive economically. When appropriately applied to the classroom, 3D printing plays a crucial role by helping unleash student creativity in a practical manner.

"My philosophy on equipment in the classroom is that it is for student use. Some schools only have two 3D printers and in some cases, the teacher is the only one allowed to operate them," says Van Meter. "This difficulty is due to a limited budget. There isn't enough money for more printers, filament, or parts replacement."

He continues, "I can relate to the frustration when things break, but they break regardless. I want to keep it student centric, student led, and student understandable. We are fortunate to have over 60 3D printers in the class from small and inexpensive to large and expensive. Do students make mistakes? Sure. But no student will learn without making mistakes. My job is to provide the teaching opportunity so they can further use the machines without abusing them long term and provide solid foundational understanding to minimize errors in the beginning."

CHS print lab

One of the more fascinating aspects of the academy is the way it turns seemingly non-STEM teaching into STEM. For example, a history lesson might be about a past invention. An English assignment would be writing a paper on it. Finally, manufacturing comes into play with ideas on how the invention could be improved or manufactured with modern technology. Students are graded on all three disciplines, History, English and Manufacturing, and it is all interconnected.

The academy covers many subjects qualifying as STEM, but not all of them involve 3D printing. So, what does the curriculum look like that does involve 3D Printing?

  • 9th graders (Intro to Manufacturing) learn 3D printing basics using both 3D pens and the UP mini 2 Printer. At this level, students begin simple projects and are engaged with using the machines to just make simple ideas, toys, gadgets, accessories and the like.
  • 10th graders (Manufacturing Drafting) are given training in SolidWorks CAD and are expected to 3D print their own designs including a VEX robotics gear as well as their own functional 3D printed model rocket. Students use 3D printing as a capstone project for a can crusher, designing a part for CNC as well as incorporating 3D printed parts in their overall project.
  • 11th graders (Manufacturing Electronics) use 3D printing as part of their electronics designs and make devices, parts, cases, etc. using their CAD and 3D printing skills.
  • 12th graders (Manufacturing Industries) use 3D Printing in their solar, fuel cell, and wind turbine projects where they combine their renewable skills with their drafting and electronics skills.

Some final thoughts from Van Meter. "Students that are hands-on kinesthetic learners do really well in an environment where they can fabricate anything quickly and seamlessly in the classroom – problem, concept, design, print, redesign! When I apply these techniques in my classes within projects, students explore the boundaries in their 3D prints, find the most complex and ingenious solutions, and apply their skills flawlessly in a way I never imagined. This is what teaching should be, shouldn't it?"