VIDEO & STORY -- PPG's architectural coatings plant near Cheswold provides grant to help fund students' robotics projects in the science, technology, engineering and math program.

To give students help in creating their own robotics projects, PPG Industries donated $5,000 to Smyrna Middle School’s science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) program Jan. 25.

Eighth grade STEM teacher Brian Hurd applied for the grant after seeing how enthusiastic students were about creating automated machines like the ones they saw during tours at the PPG Architectural Coatings plant just south of Smyrna, near Cheswold. The facility employs more than 80 people and produces products such as Glidden paints and Olympic paints and stains.

“After the visit, the students have designed, built and programmed a model of a filling line, where soup cans are substituted for paint cans. I have seen the students' perseverance increase during this build partly due to the self-directed nature of the build and them seeing their ideas develop into working machines,” Hurd said.

However, students’ projects have often been limited by the robotics materials that are available at the school – which also need to be disassembled so they can be used by other students.

Hurd’s grant request was to provide up to $50 in supplies for each student to create the robot or automated machine of his or her choosing.

“The students will be able to research, develop, and build an authentic idea, or an innovation of an existing idea,” he said. “This will provide the students with a project in which they are personally connected. I believe having this student-selected project will drive them to obtain a better understanding of the mechanical systems and programming curriculum.”

In addition to the STEM projects at Smyrna Middle School, PPG Industries also donated $4,500 for STEM Camps for ages 5 to 15 at Delaware Technical Community College in Dover.

“One of PPG’s top priorities is increasing educational opportunities for youth in the areas of math and technology,” said Neal Nicastro, PPG Architectural Coatings plant manager. “By supporting students in their pursuit of careers in these areas, we can help fuel their passions and spur innovation in the industry.”

He said the visits by the Smyrna Middle School students to the PPG factory are a positive experience for his staff.

“Our employees love your classes because they pay attention and ask lots of questions,” said Nicastrol. “We want people to know that manufacturing is not some cold, dark process. It’s exciting, and I think students are excited about creating the machines they see.”

Hurd said the plant tours always spark a lot of conversations.

“It’s great to see them in awe of something that’s right down the road from where they live,” he said. “They love to talk about what they’ve seen after they get back.”

Along with machines used in manufacturing, another example of a project students have worked on in Hurd’s STEM class is building a small “car” to help a child with limited mobility get around at school.

Student Elise Sampson said the most interesting part of the project was “being able to help another child and being able to change their life in a positive way” and “making sure they have the proper mobility skills like other kids their age.”

She said no one tells you how to make the car do what you want it to do. You have to figure it out for yourself.

“The most challenging thing was to make sure you have the components correct. There is not really a guide or anything like that and there is a lot of trial and error,” Sampson said. “So when you have a problem within the system you don't have a guide to change it. You have to do trial and error and figure out the proper solution.”

She said she sees how the STEM program at the middle school could help if she chooses a career in a related area because the “programming aspects” and “all the different mechanical systems we had to work with could definitely apply to engineering in my future.”

Student Ryan Malone worked on a project called a “useless box” which after being turned on would turn itself off. The concept is used in a variety of machines that have automatic shutoffs after completing a certain amount of work, or to save energy or maybe for safety reasons.

“It was really interesting to see how everything came together and got it moving with the code and the electronic pieces working together,” Malone said. “The most challenging part was the soldering. It was very difficult to control where the solder went and getting it on the correct pins without them bridging or touching.”

He said he likes learning about something and then getting to build a project based on what he’s learned.

“STEM education will help me in the future because if I ever proceed into an engineering pathway, I will have prior knowledge on how to use the electronic components and skills like soldering,” he said.

Middle school program leads to high school pathway

Superintendent Patrik Williams said Smyrna School District administrators, with the willingness and support from teachers in the district, have developed and designed a STEM program at both Smyrna High School and Smyrna Middle School. Over the past several years, the district has developed a STEM high school pathway, with introductory courses offered at the middle school level.

He said there’s been a national demand to provide more science, technology, engineering, and math in schools to keep up with the creative, innovative thinking needed in a high-tech economy.

Smyrna Middle School Principal Steven Gott said STEM and technology classes are offered in both the seventh and eighth grade.

“These courses are designed to deepen students’ understanding of modeling, design, robotics, and mechanical structures through a hands-on approach to learning,” Gott said.

In the past few years, Smyrna Middle School and Smyrna High School have adopted the ‘Project Lead the Way’ curriculum to align the school’s programs and offer a structured, focused curriculum in grades seven to 12.

The district is planning to expand the STEM programs to the elementary and intermediate school levels.