Tift County's Mechatronics Partnership: Expanding Career Opportunities for High School Students

August 7, 2013

By Rachna Puthottu

In January 2012, the Race to the Top Innovation Fund awarded $1 million to the Tift County Board of Education to implement the Tift County Mechatronics Partnership. The initiative developed a curriculum focused on Mechatronics, an interdisciplinary field of study involving control, electronic, computer, and mechanical systems, for Tift County High School students. Students develop skills that equip them to work in a variety of industrial, manufacturing, and health sciences essential to Georgia’s economic success. The program takes a project-based, cooperative learning approach to develop solutions for engineering applications used in industries such as the aerospace, food processing, medical devices, and automotive industries. This month’s education update provides an overview of the program, early results, and plans for sustainability.

The Innovation Fund is a $19.4 million fund created under Georgia’s Race to the Top (RT3) plan. It provides competitive grants to support partnerships between Georgia school districts or charter schools, institutions of higher education, businesses and non-profit organizations that develop or implement innovative and high-impact programs, particularly those related to STEM. The State is using the Innovation Fund to determine best practices in innovative programming related to STEM, applied learning, and teacher/leader recruitment and development to influence future education policy efforts. The Governor’s Office of Student Achievement (GOSA) administers the Innovation Fund.

The Need for the Program

Tift County is located in rural South Central Georgia. As seen in the figures below, the county’s poverty and unemployment rates exceed both the state and national average, as does the percentage of adults with less than a high school education. The students of Tift County—especially minority and economically disadvantaged students—have comparatively low standardized test scores and high school graduation rates. Recognizing these patterns and the need for graduates in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) fields to meet industry demand, local educational and industry leaders partnered together to develop the Mechatronics program to increase graduation rates, the number of students who are college and career ready, and student interest in STEM. 

Structure and Curriculum

The Tift County Mechatronics Partnership involves the Tift County Board of Education and a variety of local entities, including Moultrie Technical College (MTC), Tift Regional Medical Center, ConAgra Foods, Heatcraft Manufacturing, and the Tift County Chamber of Commerce. It is a three-year program in the manufacturing pathway at Tift County High School.[1] Students enter the program as sophomores and continue through their senior year.  To complete the pathway, students must pass 10 Mechatronics courses—two per semester in the first year, one class per semester in the second year, and two per semester in the third year.  These courses have the same rigor as Mechatronics coursework taught at MTC.

In each class, an instructor from MTC teaches students design processes for mechanical, electrical, control and computer engineering. Students integrate applied mathematics, robotics, and physics into various content areas, requiring them to use higher-order thinking skills, and work with state-of-the-art equipment used by nearby employers, such as KIA, Heatcraft, and Miller-Brewing. Cooperative learning is integral to the Mechatronics curriculum. Each day, student pairs tackle daily troubleshooting tasks such as programming robots and programmable logic controllers (PLCs) as well as designing laser systems.

Mechatronics students also earn technical college credits and certificates.  Upon completing three years of the program, students receive three technical college certificates: Basic Mechatronics Technician, Basic Mechatronics Specialist, and Mechatronics Specialist.  These certificates qualify students for jobs such as entry-level industrial technicians, apprentice electronics technicians, and entry level programmers. For students who continue their postsecondary education, these credits allow students to shorten their course of study by up to a year in the Industrial Systems Technology, Robotics, and Electronics program.[2]

The Mechatronics program also offers paid apprenticeships with local employers, such as American Textiles, Bold Chemical, and Mastercraft, upon completion of the program.  MTC and the Tift County Board of Education assist students in finding employment in the community. 

2012-13 Program Demographics

In its inaugural year, 41 sophomores enrolled in the program.  Program directors encouraged all 9th grade students to apply but focused recruitment efforts on economically disadvantaged students and those whose family does not have postsecondary education. 58% of enrolled students were economically disadvantaged. By gender, 93% of students were male. By race, 39% of students were black, 11% were Hispanic, and 50% were white, which roughly mirrors the school’s demographics.

Program Results

In fall 2012, GOSA contracted with The Findings Group to develop the Applied Learning Student Questionnaire (ALSQ) for the Race to the Top Innovation Fund applied learning grantees. The ALSQ measures changes in student intrinsic motivation, self-management, and intent to persist in STEM studies. The survey also asks students about problem solving and implementation activities. In the Mechatronics program, students had statistically significant gains in all five surveyed areas during the 2012-13 school year. The table below details further outcomes.

Mechatronics Program Achievements in 2012-13

  • All students in the program are on track to graduate in four years.
  • 75% of participants are ahead in credit hours. 
  • All 10 participants passed the May 2012 Math II EOCT, with an average score of 77. 
  • 78% of participants passed the Compass Test, meaning they are qualified for dual enrollment and the HOPE grant. 
  • Tift County High School placed 6th in the nation in SKILLS USA, a leadership development organization that sponsors competitions in technical, skilled, and service industries for high school and college students.
Looking Ahead

The Innovation Fund grant expires in September 2014.  At the end of the grant period, MTC and the Tift County Board of Education have committed to continuing the program due to overwhelming student and industry demand.  The program plans to gain funding from the MTC Foundation and the Tift County Educational Foundation to support ongoing implementation. In addition, it will seek in-kind equipment or cash donations from local manufacturers to maintain the applied learning aspect of the program. As the program has shown early positive outcomes, several districts from across the state have visited Mechatronics with hopes of replicating it in their high schools.

Contacts

For more information about Mechatronics, please contact Whitney Hudson, Race to the Top Project Director, at Tift County High School at whudson@tiftschools.com.

 

[1] During the first year of the program, the Mechatronics classes were part of the engineering pathway.  Due to changes in the Georgia Pathways, new and incoming students will be in the manufacturing pathway.

[2] Students must first pass the TCSG entrance exam, the Compass test.