LCHS mechatronics to expand

Lenoir City High School seniors Riley Davis, left, and Abigail Kennedy work on a motor control system in their electrical components class.

Strengthening Lenoir City High School’s mechatronics dual-enrollment course with Roane State Community College and opening up new programs, like cybersecurity, may now be possible after the college landed a grant for $999,950.

Roane State received the Fast Forward for Success grant last month from the Tennessee Higher Education Commission’s Governor’s Investment in Vocational Education Act. The money will benefit four school systems.

“The grant was $50 short of a million, but Gordon Williams at Roane State has told us over $400,000 of it is coming here,” Kevin Smith, mechatronics teacher, said. “That’s huge. It’s like four schools they’re beefing up, and we got the lion’s share.”

The school’s mechatronics program was first implemented in fall 2018 with one class per semester. With the grant, two classes will be available next fall, which pushes students closer to receiving various certifications from Roane State.

“The idea is that we get two every semester, starting at the beginning of their junior year, and they’d have all eight, which is over half the credits they need — it’s 25 credits they need for their degree at Roane State,” Smith said. “It’s a huge head start for them.”

Doubling up on classes will lessen the time students need to spend at the community college, and the certifications gained during high school could also create connections with local employers.

“Both of these programs that we’re adding do that with multiple jumping-off points,” Mark Weeks, LCHS assistant principal and CTE director, said. “If they just take our courses, leave with the certificates they earn here and certifications, they can go get a job. There are people hiring straight out of high school if they’ve taken some of these Roane State classes, and definitely if they go on to get their degree either in a two-year school or a four-year school, the jobs are immense in cybersecurity and mechatronics right now. If you look at the numbers, there’s a huge need across the country and in our areas.”

Roane State’s dual-enrollment mechatronics course prepares students for industries associated with electro-mechanical technicians and robotics technicians, such as plastics product manufacturing and aerospace product and parts manufacturing. The cybersecurity course, which is expected to provide six certifications and begin in fall 2020, will teach students the basics of hacking, home security systems and programming.

The grant proposal notes “there has been a 5.3% increase in the need for electro-mechanical technicians in the last five years, with further anticipated growth of 6.7% through 2029” in the local area.

Expanding mechatronics and cybersecurity has also made the high school examine its relationship with local middle schools. Weeks believes investing in early STEM education can properly prepare students for a future in STEM careers.

“We are working on a pathway program,” Weeks said. “The state is pushing a pathway for students to do career exploration in the younger grades, starting to be a little more directed in middle school and then have a really good set of courses once they get here at the high school. We wanted to provide students with (early postsecondary) opportunities so they can do the dual-enrollment things, they can get some industry certifications and then ultimately make them successful postsecondary — whether it’s school, whether it’s a training, an apprenticeship or the workforce.

“We are looking at offering a coding class at the two middle schools, North (Middle School) and Lenoir City (Intermediate/Middle School), with one of our teachers,” he added. “We’ve already invested $10,000 in the (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) program at Lenoir City, and North has a very strong STEM program as well, so we’re hoping to recruit that way, get those middle-schoolers interested in these programs.”

The grant will allow the school to purchase more equipment and create a space for the cybersecurity program in the CTE building. Smith said purchasing equipment could begin near Christmas.

“There is a market for it,” Weeks said of the courses. “We’ll just have to beat the bushes in registration in the spring to say, ‘Hey, we’ve got this new opportunity if you’re really interested in it as a career’.”