With snazzy new facilities, Johnson High poised for future

Johnson High School parent Seanne Thomas tries out a flight through the Grand Canyon on one of the new flight simulators the school installed in January. (Patrick Larkin/Review)

Peevxwm Yang, a junior at Johnson High, watched excitedly as a Johnson High parent tried out a flight simulator. He said seeing the equipment made him feel inspired to take a pilot class at the school. (Patrick Larkin/Review)

A wind tunnel at the FabLab at Johnson High School will allow students to test out the aerodynamics of their designs. (Patrick Larkin/Review)

Johnson High School principal Micheal Thompson recently flew around in the Grand Canyon, nearly crashing during the landing.

All this was within the walls of the East Side school.

Such is an example of the possibilities with the new equipment and curriculum at the school, now known as Johnson Aerospace and Engineering High School, as of the 2012-2013 school year.

The high school is now decked out with flight simulators, 3-D printers, a laser cutter, a wind tunnel and more, as part of a $1.6 million expansion that opened with the start of the spring semester this January. 

The school started its first fully equipped semester in late January, with a ribbon-cutting celebrating the new facilities on Wednesday, Jan. 29.

Ready for takeoff, the new facilities are a landmark for the growth of the East Side’s aerospace education resources, and somewhat of a milestone for Jill Wall, the main force behind the program.

It’s come a long way

Wall proudly walked the halls of the high school, looking at the new facilities and thinking back at the humble beginnings of St. Paul Public Schools’ aerospace program. Wall has been at Farnsworth Aerospace for 23 years, and has seen the program grow from a small elementary school curriculum into middle school, and now on to high school.

The program has been around long enough where Wall has seen kids start as young budding scientists at Farnsworth Aerospace Elementary, and move on to become pilots and engineers.

“To me, it’s thrilling” to see the high school up and running, she said.

Johnson now coordinates with Farnsworth and allows kids in the elementary and middle school program to continue their science learning at a high school level. And it’s opening up a world to kids who never went through the aerospace program at Farnsworth -- starting next year, all ninth-graders will take an introductory engineering design class.

“It’s a lot more hands on” than your average science course, Wall said. “This way we can get them all started.”

Inspiring future scientists

Johnson’s aerospace program is part of the Massachussetts Instutute of Technology’s FabLab program, Wall said. This allows them to be plugged into an international network of resources -- everything from meeting other students across the globe to speaking with real scientists working in professional laboratories.

Eric Colchin, a teacher in the aerospace program at Johnson, described a scenario that’s unique to the school -- students were videoconferencing with a scientist working at the European Organization for Nuclear Research, known as CERN. The Large Hadron Collider, a world-renowned theoretical physics tool, could be seen in the background.

As mechanics walked by the famous equipment, the scientist “was entertaining questions from high school students about time travel,” Colchin said, eyes lit up.

That’s just one example of the life of a Johnson Aerospace student.

In one of the new classrooms, students were learning about the European corn borer and how to identify it with the help of small, unmanned aircraft.

The curriculum is such that they learn about the destructive insect, about growing corn, how to set up the small aircraft, and how to run a business around combating the pest.

The coursework comes from a small grant from 3M.

This type of problem solving can help engage the students, Colchin explained. “You’re not doing it to do well on a test; you’re doing this because your project depends on it,” he said. With this approach, the level of learning can tend to be much deeper, he said.

Inspiration from a pro

The school is reaching out to other professionals in science and engineering careers, hoping to inspire kids to follow a similar path.

Imogene Silver, a ninth-grader at Johnson, decided recently that she’d like to become a chemical engineer. It struck her fancy after a chemical engineer from 3M talked to a class at Johnson about her work with power plants.

Silver said she’s excited about engineering because of the creativity involved.

While there’s a lot of technical thinking, the subject is very much about being creative, Wall said.

And while studying engineering takes a studious mind, and means more challenging homework, it pays off, because “it’s more fun,” Silver said.

Part of being in MIT’s FabLab network means the public may be able to join in on that fun.

MIT requires Johnson’s facilities to be accessible to the community -- how that will look for the public at large will remain to be seen, but it will mean that East Siders will be able to access the labs on a regular basis within a year, to learn technology skills and experiment with the new gadgetry.

Pilot’s license

Beginning in the fall of 2014, students will be able to take flight simulator courses, which can lead them on to taking their written pilot’s test. After two semester-long courses and one full-year class, students could be prepared for the pilot’s test, Wall said.

There’s a room at the school dedicated to housing half a dozen flight simulators, which pair up two students to learn how to pilot an aircraft in realistic scenarios. A dome surrounds the pilots as they careen over 3-D terrain, using the same controls that commercial pilots use.

Peevxwm Yang, a junior at Johnson High, watched excitedly as a Johnson High parent tried out the flight simulator. Though he knew doing the coursework for a pilot class would be extra work, “I’d say it’s worth it,” he said.

And while the courses will teach kids about piloting an aircraft, they teach them other skills too, Wall said, such as thinking on your feet, decision-making, and communication skills.

Principal’s challenge: do more

Thompson, the Johnson principal, touted the new facilities as one more way to reach students who may be bored or uninterested in traditional teaching methods. With the engineering courses, “they have a problem, they solve a real problem, for real purposes,” he said.

“We want to move from teaching for curriculum to teaching for understanding,” Thompson said, and this is a step in that direction.

Thompson noted the school is not necessarily rated the best academically among district schools, but was keen to point out that standardized achievement test scores are not the whole picture of the school.

The kids at Johnson come from diverse backgrounds, and many have had tumultuous education experiences, and some change schools annually.

“They won’t all become engineers,” he said, “but that’s not the point.” The point is that the program is “teaching them how to solve real problems,” he said. It pulls them into the learning process.

“We don’t ask our kids to do enough,” he said. “This is a way to ask them to do more.”

Contact Patrick Larkin at 651-748-7816 or at eastside@lillienews.com. Follow him on Twitter at @ESRPatrickLark.

Jill Wall Day

In December 2013, the St. Paul City Council named a day after Farnsworth Aerospace program coordinator Jill Wall. At a council meeting, they designated Dec. 12 as Jill Wall Day.

Council member Dan Bostrom said that the growth of the program has been inspiring for the East Side

“Jill was really the driving force behind all of this,” he said.

“Arcade Street is really becoming the academic corridor,” he said, referring to the schools along the street, including Johnson High School, Farnsworth Aerospace Elementary’s Upper and Lower campuses, and John A. Johnson Elementary.

While the idea could have “just been a pipe dream” to start, it had legs, Bostrom said.

Wall noted that the growth of the aerospace program has been a team effort.

“It’s truly because we have an incredible team working together for our students,” she said.

Wall told the council that it’s moments with her students that are the greatest reward -- she gets to “watch their excitement in seeing a shuttle launch or engineering a tower made of paper, or making their first landing in one of our flight simulators,” she said.


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