Studying STEM; Future is laser bright for potential engineers

MILFORD – Lively groups of fourth-graders at Heron Pond Elementary School enjoyed two STEM presentations on Wednesday, Feb. 1. The event gave them the chance to learn about opportunities for future careers in science, technology, engineering and math.

The kids designed small structures with plastic 3-D printer filament. They learned how to charge batteries. They talked with juniors and seniors from Milford High School who knew about jobs in STEM.

The kids got down on the floor with some of their older mentors to play with a group of lighted, plastic orbs. The robotic toys whizzed around under the direction of apps and hand-held controllers.

The event was led by Frank Xydias, a Milford High teacher of engineering, advanced manufacturing and computer-aided design. He was assisted by guest lecturer Skip Marsh, a longtime engineer and member of the Society of Manufacturing Engineers. Marsh’s grandson Connor was among the fourth-grade participants.

Skip Marsh, a process engineer, is president of a firm that excels in the meticulous cleaning of newly manufactured parts ranging from medical implants to jet engine components.

The day at Heron Pond originally was planned to include two well-spaced sessions. An appearance was expected by Brooks Payette, the University of New Hampshire’s coordinator of STEM career pathway activities for scores of students in the region. A snowstorm stymied one session, however. Along with Payette, later in the day, was his team of STEMbassadors, a group of engineering undergrads with a passion for STEM.

Xydias said the sign-up for the evening program, which also drew older students, was filled within 10 minutes of posting.

The fourth-graders were welcomed by Xydias to the afternoon program. Hands shot skyward when he asked them, “Who likes to build things?” and again when he asked, “Who likes to have fun?”

Similar questions with equally vivid responses primed the arrival of Skip Marsh, who came rolling into the spacious, bench-lined alcove on a blue plastic cooler. Students gasped, for Marsh had engineered the cooler into a moving vehicle. He steered with the cooler’s white plastic handle. Then he circled the clusters of kids and cruised to a stop in front of them.

Marsh was garbed in a fluorescent safety vest. Protective gloves dangled from his tool belt. Connor Marsh wore a similar vest and assisted his granddad in demonstrating some of the apparel’s safety features.

The elder Marsh bubbled with the news that there are hundreds of big-time, big-money careers awaiting those with an interest in STEM. He stressed that safety should be a top priority in any job.

“I came to talk to the kids about their choices of life jobs in STEM,” Marsh said. “There are so many skills that can lead to great careers. I want to grow a passion in these people. To me, it’s a lot of fun.”

Xydias soon invited the kids to go play. Some fourth-graders went to build a gadget or two at tables that held computer-printed toys, tools, games and gizmos. The juniors and seniors from Milford High were helpful and fielded endless questions.

Other kids learned to operate a Sphero, the name of the spherical robotic toys so well received. The units are around 3 inches in diameter and digitally endowed with pulsing colored lights. Green, blue and pink orbs skittered around the floor.

Xydias yanked up his right foot to avoid a high-tech impact as an oncoming Sphero zoomed toward him. He said that seeing the youngsters’ reactions to their newly found skills was a rewarding dividend to his 17 years of teaching.

“That’s the spark I look for,” Xydias said. “When you see the little spark that lights up, that is what energizes me. That’s what makes me excited.”

The Milford High mentors at the afternoon session gave the fourth-graders rave reviews for their grasp of basic engineering principles and practices.

Kenneth Nero, 18, is a senior who is going into cyber security with a focus on criminal psychology. Alex Charest, 17, a junior, is looking at mechanical engineering with an eye toward inventing things that will make life easier. Tyler Russin, 17, is a junior whose engineering expertise already has helped him launch a business, TeeDee Bar. He designs customized chocolate molds on a 3-D printer.

Some kids were sad to see their sessions completed. Camille Bell, 9, had listened wide-eyed as engineering buff Ben Finocchaiaro, 16, explained how a 3-D printer is operated. Classmates Gabby Marshall, Hannah Moulton, Cat Carter and Abby Krulis had explored several digital gadgets. Kortney Waters, Danika Works, Max DeRosa and Wes Voelker favored some electronic games. Few wanted to depart for their next classes.

Nevertheless, it was Joshua Berry, 10, who summed up his take on the day as “amazing.” He already knows his field of choice when it comes to STEM opportunities.

“I’m interested in being a robotics engineer,” Joshua said. “It’s interesting and fascinating to me. If I could build something right now, I’d do a 3-D printer. I already use the one at the Milford Library.”