New Generation of American Innovators Rising in Southern Lehigh Schools

SOUTHERN LEHIGH HIGH SCHOOL – America has some work to do.  Today, 40 percent of Chinese college graduates earn degrees in science and engineering.  By contrast, U.S. companies spend billions each year convincing American youth to seek entertainment rather than achievement.  It’s no wonder, then, that Americans specialize in industrial and high-tech fields at a far lower rate than their Asian competitors.  Nor is it surprising that millions of high-tech and manufacturing jobs have left the United States in recent decades.  Without a dramatic reversal of course, the United States may face a future in which she will be dependent on other nations for her livelihood.

But there is hope.  From fourth to twelfth grade, Southern Lehigh students are learning how to compete in the new, global economy.  By combining science, technology, engineering and mathematics — called “STEM” at the intermediate school and “Technology Education” at the middle and high schools — students here are learning lessons that might make America’s future a bright one. 

Erin Donahue tests the LEGO robot she and her partner programmed during Foundations of Technology 1 class at Southern Lehigh High School on Tuesday. Photo by Judd Wilson, Southern Lehigh Tribune.

According to Rick Colelli, who teaches engineering at Southern Lehigh High School, the program is intended to teach all Southern Lehigh students technological literacy by teaching basics at the intermediate school, moving on to advanced concepts at the middle school, and going even further at the high school.  Derived from the International Technology and Engineering Educators Association’s “Engineering by Design” program, the school district’s technology education philosophy claims that proper motivation will unleash a new generation of American “technologists, innovators, designers, and engineers.”  Along with manufacturing teacher Rob Gaugler II, Colelli tries to motivate students by showing them how technology relates to their everyday lives.  Southern Lehigh schools use many methods to teach students that lesson.  

In Foundations of Technology 1, high school freshmen learn how to program a LEGO robot by following a video tutorial made at Carnegie Mellon University’s Robotics Academy.  The robot obeys students’ programmed instructions to navigate a maze using a sound sensor.  In a moment reminiscent of the old Clapper commercials, Colelli explained to students that the robot would activate using whatever sound they programmed it to recognize – in this case, a clap.  The semester-long class forces students to apply their math lessons as they program rotations, distances, and formulas.  All high school students must take the class in order to graduate.  According to Colelli, it teaches technological literacy to students who one day may use robots in the real world.    

Senior Andrew Michael applies aerodynamics lessons during a flight over Honolulu on the Microsoft Flight Simulator X program, during Foundations of Technology 1 class at Southern Lehigh High School on Tuesday. Photo by Judd Wilson, Southern Lehigh Tribune.

As senior Andrew Michael demonstrated the Microsoft Flight Simulator X program, he explained that it teaches students the basics of aerodynamics, including how air flows over and around an airplane wing or helicopter rotor blade to lift aircraft.  Combined with the engine’s thrust, lift is what propels the aircraft from point A to point B.  The Coopersburg native has been using the program since the beginning of the 2009 school year, and is considering pursuing an aviation career in the future. 

Through organizations such as For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology and the Technology Student Association, Southern Lehigh students have also learned through competition.  In 1989, Segway inventor Dean Kamen founded FIRST in order to make science, technology, engineering, and math as popular as sports are today.  FIRST competitions bring together students, local sponsors, and professional engineers to design, assemble, and debug a robot capable of performing complex tasks, within a six-week time limit.  According to Gaugler, over 40 “Spartechs” high school students stayed after school from 6:30-10 p.m. Monday through Thursday, and 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. each Saturday, in order to prepare their volleyball ball-boy for regional competitions in Trenton, N.J. and Philadelphia.  Private donors and local businesses such as Lutron, Olympus, and Giant sponsor the team.  With $12.2 million of FIRST college scholarships and school pride on the line, the Spartechs take their job seriously.  However, the ethos of “gracious professionalism” teaches competitors to share discoveries with competitors to help their field grow, rather than seek victory at others’ expense.  Since former technology education teacher Travis Lehman founded the team in 2002, the Spartechs have advanced to the regional finals four times.  According to Colelli, Southern Lehigh High School student Paul Thom won 4th place in the nation for 3-D CAD animation at Baltimore last June.

The Spartechs’ robotic volleyball ball-boy poses for a photo at Southern Lehigh High School on Tuesday. Photo by Judd Wilson, Southern Lehigh Tribune.

In manufacturing classes, students learn how to mass-produce products just as they would in the real world.  Last year, students built five Adirondack chairs in one week.  Gaugler said his goal is to build 40 next April.  Other schools build canoes, but he chuckled, “we don’t have enough room for canoes.”  Through manufacturing classes, students work together to concentrate on a single, mass-produced product rather than individual projects.  They also learn some accounting and marketing, and use advanced technology such as the 3-D CAD program and a laser cutter engraver.  According to Superintendent Joseph Liberati, students at the intermediate and middle schools also have a master electrician, laser engravers, and more at their disposal.

Technology education instructor Rick Colelli observes a LEGO robot navigate a maze using only students’ programming and a sensor for guidance, during Foundations of Technology 1 class at Southern Lehigh High School on Tuesday. Photo by Judd Wilson, Southern Lehigh Tribune.

Recently, the International Technology and Engineering Educators Association announced that Southern Lehigh’s technology education program would receive its prestigious Program Excellence Award at the ITEEA Conference in Minneapolis next March.  ITEEA gives the award in recognition of outstanding contributions to the profession and students.  The award followed a long application process including updated curriculum and video of students performing projects.  Southern Lehigh previously won the award in 2005.  According to Colelli and Gaugler, Southern Lehigh is the first school district in Pennsylvania to win the award two times.     

Awards for program excellence would not have been possible without the support of the school board and administration, said Colelli.  From Liberati to Director of Secondary Education Joan Takacs to Technology Coach Joseph Breisch, the technology education instructors said the school district’s support fueled their students’ success.  “They get results,” Colelli said of the students.  After 18 and 16 years each in their field, the technology education veterans are happy to see so many Southern Lehigh students realizing success.  Colelli said their students are getting “a more rounded education.”  “This is great,” said Gaugler.     

Learn more about the Southern Lehigh School District’s Spartechs, and how to help, at

This entry was posted in Coopersburg, Joseph Liberati, School Board, Southern Lehigh High School, Southern Lehigh Intermediate School, Southern Lehigh Middle School. Bookmark the permalink.

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