“STEM rocks”—That message was sent via Morse code on an unusual telegraph between two Albemarle County Public Schools’ classrooms Thursday.

Tapping the telegraph key at Sutherland Middle School was Anne Holton, Virginia’s Secretary of Education.  On the receiving end, 5th-graders at nearby Hollymead Elementary deciphered the code of dots and dashes to spell the acronym for Science, Technology, Engineering and Math.

“These kids that I got to work with this morning have replicated the original 19th century telegraph system studying the books from the Smithsonian,” Holton said shortly afterward at a luncheon of the Charlottesville Regional Chamber of Commerce.  “While I was there, [they] sent their first telegraph message across the parking lot to Hollymead.”

The lesson captured the attention of education leaders not only from Albemarle and Richmond, but also at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington D.C.  That’s because the students had printed a scaled-down version of inventor Samuel F.B. Morse’s telegraph using a 3D printer.

“After presenting the telegraph to the Smithsonian, the Smithsonian is now providing old documentation, 3D scanning and digitizing artifacts, and other means of support to our science and engineering students,” said Sutherland science teacher Robert Munsey.

VA Secretary of Education Anne Holton transmits a message

While Secretary Horton tapped the code, humming nearby a 3D printer was systematically producing, layer by layer, parts for yet another invention.

The message Morse sent 170 years earlier between Washington and Baltimore —”What hath God wrought?”—might have been equally appropriate for the audience watching these 21st century creators. 

Eighth-graders Nate Carlson and Jenn Wendelken guided Secretary Holton and the elementary students through the setup of the equipment and the first transmission.  Aiding them was a tool Morse could have only dreamed about – a live video connection over the school computer network.

Holton greeted the students over the video feed and received a rousing cheer.

“I’m Secretary Holton and I have come to learn from you guys about the great things we can do all across the state,” Holton said.

Experiential Learners

Carlson and Wendelken said their work started, however, with low-tech source materials from the Smithsonian including Alfred Vail’s manuscripts, one of Morse’s partners.

“We got Vail’s manuscripts that he used to make his telegraph in the beginning,” Carlson said.  “It didn’t really make much sense.  He was kind of all over the place, it wasn’t like an instruction manual, so we pretty much just used the pictures.”

“Nate made the relay and I made the key, the button basically,” Wendelken said.  “I had to print mine and redesign it about three to four times.”

The students said project-based learning is what they really enjoy.

“We were given notes, and then we had to study them, and then we came to school and immediately applied those notes,” Carlson said.  “I feel that it’s much easier to remember what we’ve studied after we use them.”

“We’re definitely both experiential learners,” added Wendelken who will be attending the Math Engineering and Science Academy at Albemarle High School this fall. “Seeing and working with things that are right in front of you it’s easier to learn than say to watch a video that someone else did or to watch an experiment someone else did.”

Sutherland Middle School students Jenn Wendelken & Nate Carlson

Carlson said learning about 3D printing had also helped him outside the classroom.

“My parents recently bought a microwave and there were some broken parts in it,”  said Carlson.  His father, aware of his work at school on the telegraph, asked him if he could print a replacement part.

“I was like, ‘Yes, of course!’ and I did,” said Carlson who replicated the part in a computer design program that gives instructions to the printer.  “We put it into the microwave and it works now.”

A local collaboration

Sutherland’s principal, Dave Rogers, said three teachers at the school were involved in the program.

“Our goal is that every eighth-grader will have this kind of experience in a science course,” said Rogers.  “The teachers are redesigning the Physics curriculum this summer so it will all be this kind of advanced maker work.  The students will learn Physics concepts through building things.”

Rogers said the work was part of a partnership with Buford Middle School in the city of Charlottesville and with the University of Virginia.  Sutherland has also been named the third “Smithsonian School” in the nation. 

This is how I have always wanted to teach,” said Munsey.  “I am these kids.  I was that kid that could not learn out of the textbook. I couldn’t play the game of answering A, B, C or D.”

Munsey has been teaching for four years, but this is his “first full year of making” in his eighth-grade science classroom.

“The problem is trying to figure out how to do it in the classroom and 3D printing is the ticket,” said Munsey.  “What it does is level the playing field and it allows anyone to be able to build things and create things on a computer — no risk, high reward – It’s ok, they can edit it and fix it.”

“Instead of the curriculum controlling their work, they’re bringing the curriculum into their work, and it’s just this whole different world that they enter,” Munsey said.

School officials have dubbed Sutherland an “advanced manufacturing lab.”  To the students, it simply means they get to keep learning by designing, printing and building historic inventions in the Smithsonian’s archives.

At the Chamber of Commerce luncheon, Secretary Holton said the tour gave her the opportunity to see what project-based learning looks like in “a community that loves and values education.”

“It is absolutely exemplified by the phenomenal work that you do – the Charlottesville City Schools, the Albemarle County Schools, PVCC, our flagship university, and everything in between – and all the connections you make and the support that the business community gives to all of those systems.”

View our slideshow of Secretary Holton’s visit