Hands-on learning ready for takeoff at Johnson High in St. Paul

  • Article by: ANTHONY LONETREE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: January 23, 2014 - 9:45 PM

Hoping to build on its history, St. Paul’s Johnson High wants to shape the future with $1.6M engineering labs.

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Mike Pohl, who designed this surround-view simulator, worked with student Beckie Moua as she flew a Cirrus aircraft over the Grand Canyon on Wednesday.

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There are few alumni as iconic as hockey legend Herb Brooks, but the mention of his name brought blank stares this week from five engineering students at Johnson High in St. Paul. Then again, these kids are creating a different kind of history at the East Side school.

Now known as Johnson Aerospace & Engineering High, the storied school, home in decades past not only to hockey heroes but also a U.S. Supreme Court chief justice, is set to unveil $1.6 million-plus in new labs — among them, one containing flight simulators and an air traffic control station and another boasting high-tech digital tools that make it the district’s first “Fab Lab” tied to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) global network.

Even though Thursday’s bitter chill prompted widespread metro-area school cancellations and led to postponement of an afternoon ribbon-cutting ceremony, excitement surrounds the endeavor.

“We are on our way,” said Jill Wall, program manager for aerospace and engineering at Johnson and at the nearby Farnsworth campuses that feed into the school.

As both a community and magnet school, Johnson is positioned to become a “beacon for the East Side,” principal Micheal Thompson said. The school’s state standardized test results have trailed district averages, but he envisions drawing students from across St. Paul and turning the test scores around through hands-on lessons and projects made possible by the new emphasis on engineering.

“High school education has to move in this direction,” he said Wednesday. “You need to apply the knowledge … to understand by doing.”

The five students encountered during a recent tour are connected to projects and team efforts undertaken since the school took on the aerospace program in 2012-13. Three are minorities and two others white, a combination not quite indicative of the school’s current racial makeup. This year, 53 percent of students are Asian, 24 percent black, 12 percent white and 10 percent Hispanic.

The East Side — working class, as always — is generations removed from its Scandinavian, Polish and Italian roots. But Johnson is ever-conscious of its history and tradition. The auditorium is named after former U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice Warren Burger.

Last month, hundreds turned out to celebrate 100 years of Johnson hockey, and to recall a time when Rube Gustafson, a coach who never skated or played and coached in overshoes, won four state championships. One player, Brooks, went on to coach the U.S. Olympic team’s Miracle On Ice triumph at Lake Placid, N.Y., in 1980. Another, Wendell Anderson, became governor.

Johnson’s hockey program is healthy now after having hit a rough patch a few years ago, “but the depth that the coach can go into the bench is probably more limited than it used to be,” Thompson said.

There is a new sports dynasty — a girls’ badminton program that has won four consecutive state titles and in 2013 had senior stars with the last names of Her, Vang and Lee.

On the academic side, the school’s message is: “Investigate, Innovate and Initiate.”

Freshman Imogene Silver, 14, said that while at one time her career goal was a “cliché,” perhaps being a doctor or a veterinarian, now she was considering becoming a chemical engineer.

She credits the change in thinking to a Principles In Engineering course that taught her “exactly what engineering is — and what I want to do,” she said.

And what is engineering?

“Engineering is creating,” she said.

That ninth-grade class meets in one of two engineering labs built side-by-side in a new addition. Elsewhere, created out of existing spaces, are the Flight Simulator Lab and the Fab Lab with its 3-D printers, laser cutters and a large wind tunnel. Across the hall from the Fab Lab is a more traditional woodworking shop with a router that MIT required for inclusion in the Fab Lab network.

Next year, Wall said, the school will offer a new course: “Fab Lab: How To Make Almost Anything.”

Jeff Opichka, the Fab Lab’s instructor/manager, said students who learn of the science, math and engineering that go into creating things have a greater appreciation when they see the end product.

The five students who discussed some of their recent projects expressed admiration for each other’s work, too. After Silver spoke of her design of a small metal ramp that could lift a 500-gram mass a specific distance — no more, no less — Kianna Thomas, a fellow freshman who, like all of the students, is an East Sider, said: “I would have never thought of something like that.”

Max Riley, 14, a freshman, created a small elevator-like structure utilizing gear ratios and torque.

Chue Yee Vang, 17, a senior, and Pader Thao, 16, a sophomore, have embarked on a Physics of Aerospace Engineering project that calls for development of a drone that scours farm fields for corn-boring worms.

Did either, by chance, have plans to follow the upcoming Winter Olympics?

“I really don’t watch TV,” Thao said.

Said Vang, “I spend too much time on school work.”

 

Anthony Lonetree • 651-925-5036

 

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