DANVILLE – Danville High School's Project Lead the Way program took a big step into the 21st century this year thanks to a high-tech tool that looks kind of like a front-loading washing machine.
The Dimension BST 768 is actually a three-dimensional printer that brings pre-engineering students' ideas and designs to life.
"It's really cool to see something you've designed and hold it in your hand," sophomore Sarah VanLeer said.
Project Lead the Way is a national program designed to interest high school students in engineering and help prepare them to enter and succeed in college-level programs.
Danville High launched the curriculum in 2004.
Last June, the school was one of 30 across the country to win a $10,000 grant from Dimension to put toward the $18,500 printer, said teacher Duane Collins, who pursued the grant.
"It actually didn't cost the district any money," Collins said, adding that Dianne Kurth, the career and technical education coordinator and applied technology division leader, obtained federal Perkins funds to cover the rest.
The printer is a networked, desktop modeling system that builds functional 3-D models with durable plastic from the bottom up, a layer at a time, Dimension's Web site said.
According to Dimension, "students create a three-dimensional design in a computer-aided design program, then the software imports the STL file and automatically slices and orients the model, creating any necessary support structures and plotting a precise path for the printer to follow."
"I can start the printer in the morning and teach my classes. (Students) will come back in the afternoon, and it's done," Collins said over the quiet hum of the machine, which was making a small, coiled hexagon-shaped container on Thursday. "You don't even know it's on."
Students have made puzzle cubes with red, white, blue, green and yellow pieces. They're now designing a miniature train engine body, wheels, connecting arms, pins, other parts and a track.
"The goal is to constrain all of those parts and put motion to it," Collins said.
Students have found other applications.
Senior Charles Mosiman made a mug, and senior Alex Janssen made a two-blade boat propeller for a physics class project.
"It worked out really well," Janssen said.
"After I made it, all of the other kids wanted to make one, too."
Through the projects, students develop problem-solving, critical-thinking, and team-building skills.
"All of these are real-world skills," Collins said, adding they also must figure out cost, material and time constraints and whether a product is marketable.
"It's really interesting. You get to work at your own pace and solve your own problems rather than ones that are set out for you," Mosiman said.
As students made computer designs, two visitors, Danville Metal Stamping President and CEO Judd Peck and Human Resources Manager Chris Dunn marveled at the printer and the hexagon-shaped container designed by senior Tyler Ammermann.
Ammermann explained how he drew the hexagon; used a coil command to add the twist and a shell command to hollow out the inside; made a lid; then redesigned the container after the first lid didn't fit correctly.
"I think this is awesome," said Dunn, who worked as a machinist, tool maker and engineer for nearly 30 years. "It's exponentially more technically involved than when I was going to school because of the 3-D aspect. It synthesizes their ideas and creativity and brings it to life. It's not just an abstract thing."
"They're getting students engaged in education," Peck said, adding he believes what they're learning will put local students ahead of the game.
"If they have good critical thinking skills, good communication skills and the ability to work with other people, they'll be able to adapt to an ever-changing and quickly changing world," said Peck, who's also a Danville school board member.