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STEM program prepares RHMS students for competition and workforce
John Melcher Headshot from website
John Melcher

During his nine years at Richmond Hill Middle School, John Melcher has worked to make science, technology, engineering and mathematics, popularly known as STEM, come to life in his classroom.

The program, which Melcher said came about with the help of other passionate educators and a supportive community, was a dream of Chip Eckwall, a former RHMS teacher who died in 2013.

Since Eckwall’s death, Melcher and the RHMS team have developed an even stronger desire to continue that dream. The program has grown and continues to challenge students to think outside the box.

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has said, “Everyone has a stake in improving STEM education. Inspiring all our students to be capable in math and science will help them contribute in an increasingly technology-based economy and will also help America prepare the next generation of STEM professionals — scientists, engineers, architects and technology professionals — to ensure our competiveness.”

From a purely economic standpoint, students can benefit from receiving a better STEM education because the fields are expanding more quickly than any other besides the health-care industry. By 2018, 1 in 20 global jobs will be STEM-related — an estimated 2.8 million jobs in total. More than 90 percent of those jobs will require secondary degrees, and more than two-thirds will require a bachelor’s degree, according to Connections Learning, an online-education provider by Pearson, a provider of textbooks and other education materials.

At RHMS, Melcher allows students to pick their areas of competition. This makes for an enthusiastic group of students ready to research and build products. These products will be used in various competition categories this year.

Upon entering Melcher’s classroom, one can quickly see it is not a typical setting where students sit while the teacher lectures. The room is filled with projects under construction; a full-scale flight simulator equipped with controls; and monitors, computers and rockets. And just outside the door is a newly constructed greenhouse.

Melcher wants the 370 STEM students to learn hands-on so they can acquire real-life skills.

None of this would be possible without the support of the community and local businesses, Melcher said.

Gulfstream has donated 24 laptop computers and other materials. David Minning, Engineering Group Head II, Corporate Product Lifecycle Management, Computer Aided Design Applications at Gulfstream, is a frequent visitor to the classroom.

“I want to make sure these kids and those around here are exposed to tools out in the workforce today,” he said. “We have to grow our own kids here organically.”

JCB, Plantation Hardware, and Fight Safety International all contribute to the school’s STEM program. Melcher and Steve George of Flight Safety International work side by side building and improving the already active flight simulator.

“They have opportunity to get more in depth with the things they like. I let them choose a STEM competition to compete in. Therefore, the interest is there. I provide them a place to do the work,” Melcher said.

Competition preparation is underway. Students are working on the Future City and Astronaut Challenge contests.

Future City is sponsored by Shell Oil and is a national competition. Eighteen teams have signed up to compete at RHMS. Soon, the 18 will be narrowed to six, who will represent Richmond Hill Middle at the regional competition at Kennesaw State University in January. From there, winners continue on to the national finals in Washington the following month.

The Astronaut Challenge is sponsored by NASA and held at Florida State University.

“Last year, we were allowed to take a middle school team to compete in the high school division,” Melcher said. “We placed 11th out of 20 teams, including international teams. This year, we have six teams competing. Florida State came and tested here, so four teams (24 students) qualified to compete at the Kennedy Space Center. They actually get to do a presentation in front of astronauts, scientists and engineers.”

Melcher said he is proud of the progress of the school’s STEM program and the students. Richmond Hill Middle will host STEM night Dec. 16. This will be an opportunity for the community to see firsthand the work these students have been doing.

“None of this would be possible without the estimated 20 teachers who serve as advisers, mentors, chaperones and volunteers on everything from Future City to hydroponics to rocketry and bridge building,” Melcher said.

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