By Jessica Jones
A Hoover High School program that is preparing students for college-level engineering classes is expanding, thanks to a new wing recently completed on the Buccaneer Drive campus.
Students in the Engineering Academy started the new school year in the new addition. The enlarged facility allows more classes to be offered in the program, which started in 2004.
Dr. Mark Conner, head of the Engineering Academy, said the new wing has increased the number of classrooms available for EA classes and enhances the sense of community among the engineering students and their teachers.
“We also have the ability to offer two sections of engineering classes during any given class period, something we haven’t been able to do to this point because of having only one computer lab on a campus,” Conner said. “We have tried to schedule classes very intentionally this year so that during most class periods, there are two different engineering classes being taught. This will allow us to schedule some time for engineering students from different grade levels to spend time with each other. We are hoping that this will enhance the sense of community among the students and increase our retention rate.”
The additions, which include new shop space, were made near the end of the last school year. The final touches were made in time for the start of the new school year on Aug. 19.
“The addition of shop space opens up the possibility for additional hands-on learning for our students,” Conner said. “Limited physical space has limited what we can do in the way of fabrication activities in a classroom or extracurricular setting. As we are able to acquire additional equipment, we have the option to expand some of the topics currently covered in EA courses, incorporate new topics and grow the scope of the senior design projects in the engineering design and entrepreneurship course.”
Conner said the idea for the Engineering Academy at Hoover High came from Martin Nalls, who was the school’s assistant principal at the time.
It took a full year to work out the details of the program, and in 2004, classes started being taught by degreed engineers with the aim of getting students ready for college-level engineering courses.
“Our goal is college prep,” Conner said. “Everything we’ve designed and built has been preparing them for undergraduate engineering because there’s usually a pretty big gap between walking out of high school and being ready for what’s awaiting them when they get to the undergraduate level. So given what Hoover High School has to offer in math and science and English and everything else, it just made sense to gear everything toward college prep.”
The curriculum spans each year of high school and consists of one elective course in the ninth through 12th grades in addition to advanced math and science classes.
“When they walk out of here, usually what they see in the first year and a half or so in their undergraduate curriculum is largely things that they’ve seen before. Then it starts to get a little more difficult at that point,” Conner said.
Conner said he frequently hears from former students about how well-prepared they were for college after completing Hoover’s EA program.
While some graduates report on how the academy has helped them with their post-secondary studies, at least one former student had news of a different kind, Conner said.
“I actually had a student who graduated from here in May send me an email a couple of weeks ago saying that he went to tour a facility here in town that does engineering work, and after he finished going through the tour and talking to the people and telling them about his high school background, they offered him a full-time paid internship for the summer,” Conner said.
That student was Jacob Varner, a freshman at Auburn University who’s studying software engineering. This summer, Varner interned at Fitz-Thors Engineering Inc., a small engineering firm in Bessemer.
Varner said one course he is now taking at Auburn covers information that he learned in his sophomore year at Hoover High.
“I have had several windows of opportunity opened almost directly because of the academy, and because of the skills I learned, I was able to take those opportunities and almost always excel,” Varner said.
The academy also teaches “soft skills” that students need to get jobs just as much as they need advanced math courses, Varner said.
“I would also say that I am a ton more prepared to write in a technical way and have become far better with my presentation and general communication skills because of all the practice that came as a result of my four years in the academy,” he said.
A strong student in math and science, Varner said the academy gave him the ability “to shape those skills and also showed me how they could be applied in different engineering fields and problems.”
Varner said his interest in engineering was sparked in his last year of middle school when academy faculty members came to his school to recruit new students who would enter high school in the fall as freshmen.
“At that point, I didn’t really know what an engineer was, but soon someone told me that engineers were usually very good in math and science and also got to be creative,” Varner said. “From that point, I had my mind set on being an engineer, and the Engineering Academy proved to be the best way to further that goal.”
Varner is not the only former student who said he has benefited from what he learned through the academy.
T.J. Nguyen, a mechanical engineering graduate at Auburn University and AU Student Employee of the Year Award recipient, said he was able to skip a few classes in his freshman year of college thanks to what he learned through the academy.
“I was able to get out of Calculus I and Physics I,” Nguyen said. “The programming and solid modeling we learned was similar or more in-depth than some of the early engineering classes I had to take.”
Nguyen said he has some advice for students considering an engineering career.
“My advice to students who are thinking about engineering is to realize that a fulfilling life is more than just money,” he said. ”While engineers typically do make good money, it is also a rewarding career that will challenge you intellectually and never gets old. Engineers solve problems, and the world will never run out of problems.”
Varner said he also encourages students to explore engineering through the Hoover High School program.
“Whether you know for sure you want to be an engineer, you think you are just good in science and math or you want to go into any other business-related field, the Engineering Academy works wonders in preparing you for success in life after high school,” Varner said. “Obviously, students that want to be engineers are going to get the most out of the academy, but with the skills that are taught and the way the class is run, I believe the academy prepares you for almost any field of study better than any other academy that Hoover High School also offers.”
For more information on the Engineering Academy at Hoover High School, visit www.eahoover. com.