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Placer High tech class is gateway to industry

Funding remains a challenge
By: Jon Schultz, Journal Staff Writer
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What do your alarm clock’s snooze button, a ski lift and Cirque du Soleil have in common? Technology integral to their operation is being taught to students in Placer High School’s mechatronics program, which is on the cutting-edge of curriculum aimed at those looking for a future in manufacturing or a related industry. “When it comes to manufacturing, I guess you could say I’m at the beginning of the pipeline,” said James Anderson, who is in his second year as Placer’s mechatronics teacher. “Sometimes I have to trick kids a little bit to get in that pipeline and explore a little bit, find out where it might take them.” In Placer County, about 270 manufacturers with an annual payroll of $547 million employ more than 7,000 residents, according to a recent city memo, and in 2010, the average U.S. manufacturing worker earned $77,000 annually compared to $56,000 for the average worker in all industries. Mechatronics blends the principles of electronics, computer control and mechanical engineering. In other words, whether you’re pressing a snooze button on your phone’s alarm clock or driving in a car with anti-lock brakes, those systems require interaction with microprocessors, which are at the heart of mechatronics systems, Anderson said. “When I hit the snooze button, what really happened inside that clock?” he said. Sophomore Mason Sage said he saw mechatronics as a perfect fit for his interests. After all, he built a computer when he was 13 years old, he said. Instead of going to a store and buying a stock desktop, he pieced it out on his own, finding the parts that fit the exact specifications he wanted, he said. “I knew what mechatronics was, and I was excited to find out Placer had that kind of class I could take,” Sage said. He has taken the beginner-level class and will start the advanced course next term. This is the first year a student who earns a “B” or better in the advanced class will earn credit to Sierra College, which has been a significant contributor to the high school’s mechatronics program and has made Placer its primary feeder school for mechatronics, Anderson said. Sage said he is looking to get as much of a head start in his education in the field as he can and plans to take one or two mechatronics classes at Sierra College during his junior year of high school. Placer’s mechatronics class features 50 hands-on labs, and Sage said his favorite project was making a crane that picked up and moved little cups of cement. “I wish that more people would get involved in mechatronics because it’s a really cool course,” he said. “Only probably half the people in Placer know about mechatronics and what it is, and I think it’s a really big industry out there.” The class at Placer is supported by Sierra College’s Science, Technology, Engineering and Math, or STEM, Collaborative, which helps cover about half of the class’ costs in a given year, said Peter Efstathiu. The class costs anywhere from $6,000 to $10,000 a year, he said. Students who sign up are asked to make a donation of $25 or $50 to help cover costs, Efstathiu said. Although Anderson said both the school and Sierra College do their best to help, fundraising remains the biggest challenge facing the program. “I’m Dumpster diving,” he said. “I’m always asking people for wire and things I can use in my program whether it be tools, consumables, or even best, cash money. So that’s the hardest part. All these labs cost money. … There’s not a lot of money in education right now.” To help save on costs, Anderson said he recycles materials as much as he can, even using Legos to build robots, but a lot of the electronic components can’t be reused. He said the class, which started about six years ago, grew from two sections last year with a combined 60 students to three beginner sections and the advanced class – effectively doubling the number enrolled in mechatronics. Auburn Mayor Kevin Hanley said he’s impressed with the collaborative efforts between Placer and Sierra College. “It’s quite impressive that at the high school level we have this career technical education movement up to Sierra College and supported by the county economic development efforts,” Hanley said. “It’s really going to strengthen our county and ultimately our country.” As for Cirque du Soleil? The dramatic blend of circus acts and street entertainment requires intricate sets that use computers to choreograph dynamic staging, and show organizers were recently recruiting Sierra College mechatronics students, Anderson said. “I wanted to go see a performance after I heard about that,” he said. Jon Schultz can be reached at jons@goldcountrymedia.com