One week before classes began for St. Paul Central High School’s spring semester, work-based learning coordinator Emily Punyko found out she would be teaching an honors engineering essentials course — despite having little exposure to the subject matter.
“I wasn’t actually able to do any sort of recruitment or planning ahead of time,” Punyko said.
Weeks into the class, all of the seniors attending stopped showing up. Juniors stepped up as leaders, she said, but she knew she wanted more for the class. Her solution came from Minnetronix Medical.
Punyko first learned about Minnetronix, a St. Paul-based medical device engineering firm, at a career day event in October hosted by the St. Paul Area Chamber. In the fall, Central began partnering with the company to provide students real-world experience and mentorship through the company’s Leading, Engaging, Accelerating Professionals, or LEAP.
Developed about two years ago, LEAP is a team of engineers in the first decade of their careers who are interested in engaging in community service as part of their work. A goal of the program is to increase diversity in the field through exposing more students to engineering. They began by partnering with Dunwoody College of Technology in Minneapolis and the Dougherty Family College at the University of St. Thomas, but Central represented the first connection to St. Paul Public Schools.
“I think we all know engineering tends to not be a particularly diverse discipline right now, and so how could we expose more students with a wider variety of backgrounds, but with an intentional focus on underserved and underrepresented communities?” asked Carolyn Baldus, director of communications at Minnetronix. “How do we start exposing these kinds of career opportunities to a broader population?”
Career-level work in high school
At first, the LEAP team led interested students on a tour of Minnetronix’s facilities and provided them an opportunity to engage in immersive activities on-site.
Following the success of those opportunities, other schools began to show interest, driving Minnetronix and the school district to think about expanding to classroom work. The LEAP team developed eight modules they could take on the road to demonstrate to high schoolers what being an engineer meant and help them model some of their daily tasks, starting in Punyko’s engineering essentials class.
Punyko said one of the LEAP team’s most memorable lessons was on the mechanics of a medical device developed to deliver an electric shock to a patient as a less invasive surgery for carpal tunnel syndrome.
“The kids got to brainstorm ways to mitigate any risks that would happen in the development process all the way to being in a hospital,” she said. “There’s a lot of problem solving, critical thinking. We talked about the ethics of what they as engineers in this company have to consider not just with one device, but also how it could impact the long run.”
But the Minnetronix engineers also are helping Punyko’s students with all the projects along the way to their final, when students will create their own model of a laparoscopy system for carpal tunnel surgery.
During Punyko’s March 29 class, Minnetronix engineers Carson Westra, 24, Ren LaGrant, 25, and Carter Paulzine, 25, walked around assisting students with programming microcontrollers, or mini computers, which are instrumental in controlling devices from toasters to televisions.
Sound advanced for high schoolers? The young engineers definitely seemed impressed.
“They’re like, really good at it — that’s the part that really makes me excited,” said Paulzine. “I was a STEM kid and took all the science classes that I could in high school, but getting to do something like this would have been even better. So I’m glad that I can be a part of watching other people get to do it.”
Ideally, Punyko said, the LEAP team should visit the engineering essentials class at least three times per semester. So far, they’ve already shown up three times just for the current electrical engineering unit.
“Anytime she says she needs help with anything, we’re happy to kind of jump on it,” said Paulzine. “It represents a fun and interesting angle to have in our work. We wrote up a homework problem for her once and then checked the work, and we helped her set up one of the labs and made sure that she was doing it right.”
However, Punyko said even within public schools like Central, barriers exist preventing more diverse students from engaging in this type of work. While the engineering essentials class is majority students of color, it’s still 90% male.
“I have students in the hallways that would be so successful in this course and learn a ton of things about themselves,” said Punyko. “But because they have been academically put in like a regular track, and this being an honors course, they just assumed that they wouldn’t be able to do that.”
Punyko said she’s been working on individualized recruitment to get more talented students in the room, though many students remain hesitant to enter a space where few others look like them. She also works to meet students where they are, making sure students who have never coded before have just as many opportunities to learn and grow as those with college-level computer science credentials.
“My class is not a class where they should have homework,” Punyko said. “My class is a class for them to really explore and learn about themselves and use the time in class to build and create and discover.”