Hundreds of students from across East Tennessee will gather in Powell for a regional tournament this month, but they won’t be scoring goals or making tackles.
Instead, students from KCS and other school districts will be participating in the 2019 Top Wrench competition, which tests the skills of CTE students in a variety of challenges related to the auto repair industry.
Founded in 1991, Top Wrench is designed to foster teamwork and technical skills for students who are interested in pursuing an auto-related career after high school. Program director Maria Richardson said that while interest in CTE-related fields has grown in recent years, the auto repair industry needs more workers.
The competition, she said, not only offers networking opportunities, but provides a community for students who may not be interested in activities like band or sports.
“I think they enjoy being around other students who share their interests and their passion, and they get to interact with businesses … so they can possibly make connections with future employment opportunities,” she said.
Students compete in six categories:
Engine Start, in which competitors work to fix a “bugged” engine;
Computer Control, using scanners to diagnose an engine problem;
Pit Crew Challenge, a timed, NASCAR-style wheel-changing competition;
Welding Fabrication, a judged contest featuring pre-made pieces that demonstrate welding skills;
Custom Paint, a judged contest featuring pre-made pieces that demonstrate paint skills; and
Valve Cover Race, a soapbox-derby style race using modified engine valve covers.
James Miller, a senior at Gibbs High School, participated in last year’s Pit Crew competition, as part of a team that earned a third-place trophy. He’s part of a Maintenance and Light Repair course at Gibbs that’s taught by Rick Honeycutt, and said it’s one of his favorite classes because it relates to his interests.
And when it comes to career role models, he doesn’t have to look far. Honeycutt worked for 37 years in auto dealerships, starting as a Mercedes technician and working his way up to supervisor at a Toyota dealership before making the shift to teaching.
Honeycutt said that for some students the class will provide a foundation for a good career. But even for students who don’t work in the auto field, learning the basics of maintenance “could save them a lot of money in their lives, just doing the small things.”
That’s part of the appeal for McKenna West, a Gibbs senior who enjoys using computer systems to diagnose engine problems. While she doesn’t expect to work on cars as a career, she knows the skills will come in handy later.
“I enjoy the class because it allows me to learn how to do stuff myself so when I get out of high school and something on my car breaks, I can just buy the parts and fix it myself instead of spending an arm and a leg on the parts and labor,” she said.
This year’s Top Wrench competition will take place on Oct. 31 from 8:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. at Crown College.
Tyrell Ragland comes from a family of basketball players, but the West High School senior chose football at an early age.
That’s good news for West. The team is off to a 7-0 start this season, and as they prepare for a highly-anticipated showdown with undefeated Powell High School on Friday, Ragland has become one of its most important leaders.
“We’ve got four freshmen starting on the varsity,” Coach Lamar Brown said during a recent practice. “And Tyrell and the other seniors … have really taken a young football team underneath their wing and really guided and directed them and showed them what this football program is about.”
Ragland plays left tackle at West, and his football career may continue beyond high school. He’s received offers from schools including Culver-Stockton College and Mississippi Valley State University, the alma mater of former NFL wide receiver Jerry Rice.
Asked about his leadership philosophy, the offensive co-captain emphasized the importance of being responsible for your own actions, or your own “20 square feet” of space. Once you understand yourself, he said, then you can figure out how to lead others.
“Because everybody doesn’t handle situations the same way,” he added. “So you have to know your players, you have to know your brothers, you have to know your family … to figure out what would help them and make them better.”
After finishing 4-7 last year, West opened this season with a dramatic overtime win against Bearden, and hasn’t looked back since. The team is averaging more than 28 points in the first half of its games and is currently ranked 4th in the Knoxville area by PrepXtra.
Ragland said the turnaround has grown out of the team’s commitment to playing together as a family, and that sense of unity is part of what drew him to the sport. While his father and his siblings always loved basketball, Ragland said he enjoys the physicality of football and the sense of brotherhood.
But while his success on the field gets most of the attention, it’s not the only place where Ragland stands out. He’s a leader in West’s chapter of Fellowship of Christian Athletes, and his goal is to eventually become a teacher and coach.
Ragland cited the example of assistant coach Nate Martin, who is also a social studies teacher at West. “He will push you until you get it. He will encourage you to finish … He’ll tell you all these stories, and it just inspires you to do good and do better,” he said. “That’s what I want to do for kids in high school, kids in middle school … is help them find a way in life that they can succeed.”
The senior is already having an impact in the classroom. Amanda Sharp, a social studies teacher, had Ragland in a class last year, and said she has looked to him this year to help manage one of her larger classes, adding that “kids will … follow his lead.”
Sharp emphatically agreed that Ragland would be a good teacher, not only because of his aptitude for math but also because of his ability to relate to students.
“I’m so excited for him to become a teacher and see the relationships that he can form with kids,” she said. “Because I know that he’s going to be able to change some lives.”
In fact, that ability to relate to his teammates is already paying dividends. Ragland acknowledged that he’s not someone who leads with tough talk or a raised voice, but said that when a teammate is struggling he tries to help them figure things out.
After one recent game, he said, a teammate was frustrated by their own performance. “I told him … we all have bad games. Even the best players in the world have bad games, but they’re going to find a way to fix it and that’s what you’ve got to do.”
It may have been Fall Break, but on Tuesday morning students from Ball Camp Elementary School were hard at work on an engineering project.
Gathered in the school library, teams of 5th-graders were given 25 pipe cleaners and challenged to build the tallest possible free-standing structure.
While one team crafted a tree-shaped design with a rootlike base and a twisted trunk, other groups tried to make cube-shaped structures with stability to match their height.
While they worked, Holston Middle School teacher August Askins walked around the room, asking questions designed to promote creativity: Were there any limitations on how wide the structure could be? What modifications could be made to improve the design? Should the weight of the structure itself be more or less than the weight of its base?
The exercise was part of a new KCS program called Gear Up 4 STEM, which aims to connect younger students with careers in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math.
Currently, the Gear Up camp is a pilot program offered at four schools, with a goal of increasing to 10 schools next year. Students participate during the weeks of Fall Break and Spring Break, along with two weeks during the summer.
Andrea Berry, Science and STEM Supervisor for KCS, said exposure to a particular career often drives a student’s interest in that line of work. The Gear Up camp not only gives students a chance to learn from industry professionals, but also to participate in work that mimics those jobs — such as the engineering project at Ball Camp.
“As teachers we get very focused on teaching our content during the school year, which is a great thing,” Berry said. “But while we have content instruction in the STEM camp, our focus is more on what career puts this content into action and what soft skills are needed in this career — such as creativity and collaboration — to really make it successful.”
The program was funded by a federal Education Innovation and Research grant, and draws not only on the expertise of teachers, but also of older students and industry partners.
At Ball Camp, Hardin Valley Academy sophomore Iris Li and Farragut High School sophomore Jerome Andrews acted as mentors, helping students think through problems and find solutions.
Li is planning to pursue a career as an aerospace engineer and said her older sister, who is studying computer science, was an inspiration. She’s hoping to play the same role for elementary students at Ball Camp.
“STEM is something that is more than just scientists and beakers and numbers, it’s about creativity and it’s something everyone can enjoy,” she said.
The Gear Up program also receives community support from local STEM-based companies. Storage Pug, which creates marketing and management software for self-storage businesses, is an industry partner at Cedar Bluff Elementary, helping students design a simple app to address issues at their school.
At Ball Camp, the business manager of engineering firm Innovative Design Inc., Kevin Fillers, talked to students about engineering applications in the world around them, such as bridges and buildings.
When Fillers talked about “the power of the triangle” in providing stability for buildings and infrastructure, 5th-grader Owen Vaughan asked why so many buildings appear to use square designs. If you think about it, Fillers pointed out, two triangles can be joined to form a square — a strategy that is often used in architecture and construction, even if it’s not visible.
In an interview, Vaughan said he liked building things with Lego bricks when he was younger, including a replica of the Eiffel Tower. Asked what he has learned at STEM camp, he cited the lesson about triangles and their power for holding structures together.
Ultimately, the chance to capture the imagination of young students and help them see the world in new ways are what the Gear Up camps are about. Askins, who is helping lead the sessions at Ball Camp, said she loves teaching and that students keep her going.
“Where else do you have the opportunity to help kids achieve their goals in life and have a positive impact on the future for all of us?” she said. “It sounds cheesy, but I believe it.”
Laura Lee Thompson, an art teacher at Austin-East Magnet High School, celebrates her $15,000 TeacherPreneur grant on September 20, 2019.
Laura Lee Thompson’s students create plenty of art using traditional methods, but the teacher at Austin-East Magnet High School wants them to have digital expertise as well.
Thanks to a grant from the Great Schools Partnership, she’ll soon have more tools to accomplish that goal.
On Friday Thompson was surprised with a $15,000 check as part of the TeacherPreneur program, which is funded by the Great Schools Partnership and administered in conjunction with the KCS Office of Teaching and Learning.
The celebration included a surprise greeting with confetti cannons, an appearance by Knox County Mayor Glenn Jacobs and hugs from A-E students.
Thompson plans to buy 29 iPads, digital drawing tools and programs, and a projection system that incorporates Apple TV. The idea, she said, is that students will develop expertise that makes them more competitive in the visual art world and the job market, including skills used for building websites.
“We make artwork using traditional tools, like pencils and paintbrushes and those types of things, but I want kids to make artwork with newer technology as well,” she said. “It becomes more marketable and it becomes a skill that they can use throughout their life, to create artwork in a new digital way.”
Thompson’s grant was the largest awarded during this year’s round of TeacherPreneur grants. At a series of celebrations on Thursday and Friday, Great Schools officials recognized 17 teachers with grants totaling $101,570. The winners were chosen from a pool of 75 entries, and the program has awarded $643,000 to 85 teachers during the last six years.
Austin-East students were pleased to see their teacher recognized. Freshman Keayuan Hawkins described herself as an artistic person and said she loves the creative work that happens in Thompson’s class, including a technique in which students used spiral shapes to draw the viewer’s attention to a piece of art.
Senior LeShaun Blair said Thompson is interactive with all her students.
“Even though 50 kids are yelling her name, she’s always there to help you no matter what’s going on,” he added.
Laura Lee Thompson, an art teacher at Austin-East Magnet High School, is greeted with confetti at a news conference announcing her $15,000 TeacherPreneur grant.
On a recent morning at Gresham Middle School, students in Nicole Resmondo’s class were getting ready for “Trap Tuesday.”
Before leading them out a back door, the 6th-grade science teacher highlighted a roster of jobs and asked for volunteers, including paper collector, paper switcher, water carrier and cup refiller.
Once the volunteers were identified, students walked out of the building and across the school’s campus to a hillside, where a series of plastic water cups was scattered in different locations.
At one of those locations, Resmondo and a small group of students examined the cup and the teacher pointed out dozens of mosquito larvae. The tiny, thread-like creatures were squirming in the water, prompting cries of “Wow!” and “Oh my gosh!” from students, who used a clipboard to take notes.
The activity is part of an effort to trap mosquitos and study their populations, and it’s giving Gresham students a hands-on look at how scientific research works. But they’re not the only ones who are benefiting from the effort.
The research — part of a USDA-funded project awarded to the University of Tennessee Institute of Agriculture that is known as the MEGA:BITESS Academy — is providing valuable data that will help scientists understand La Crosse encephalitis, a mosquito-borne disease.
Becky Trout Fryxell, an associate professor at UTIA, is the principal investigator for the project, which involves schools across East Tennessee, including several within KCS. Trout Fryxell said that because La Crosse encephalitis affects a relatively small number of people, it’s hard to obtain funding to study its transmission.
But she said a community-driven surveillance program can go a long way toward understanding the disease and the mosquitoes that carry it. “Right now we’re sitting at temperatures in the ‘90s and we haven’t had any rain, so these cups are going to be the sole places where a lot of these mosquitoes are laying their eggs,” she added.
In order to gather data, students prepare water for the traps by mixing it with bovine liver powder and storing it in a closed bucket for seven days. They pour the water into the mosquito traps, plastic cups that are geo-coded by location and that include seed-germination paper which captures mosquito eggs.
Every week the students collect data about how many eggs, larvae and pupae are collected in each trap, paying special attention to factors such as sunlight or shade and how they affect the results.
After recording the data, the old water and any larvae are poured out while the egg papers are dried out so the eggs go dormant. The eggs are then sent to UT, which tries to hatch them in a secure environment and tests the resulting mosquitos for La Crosse.
Resmondo was part of the state committee that writes curriculum standards for science in Tennessee, and currently serves on the Knox County science curriculum team. She’s a strong believer in allowing students to do actual science and said that by asking questions, looking at data and participating in hands-on experiments, students gain a fuller understanding.
“If you just read about it, it kind of comes in one ear and out the other,” Resmondo said. “When you do the science, it’s something that you won’t forget.”
In fact, inspiring students to pursue science careers is central to the initiative. Trout Fryxell said the main goal of the project is to promote workforce development, with the idea that students will get a taste of disciplines such as agriculture, entomology, geography, and science communication, and pursue those careers when they finish school.
Last summer, participating teachers attended a summer workshop that focused on the experimental side of the project, and early next year they’ll attend workshops that highlight geospatial analysis and communication skills.
Participating teachers get a small reimbursement, and Trout Fryxell said the project is seeking more teachers for next year’s cohort.
After gathering their data, Gresham students returned to class and discussed the things they’ve learned, including the environmental factors that attract mosquitoes, the role of vectors in spreading disease and the physical markings of the Asian Tiger mosquito.
In an interview, 6th-grader Hetvi Patel said she loves doing experiments and wants to be a veterinarian when she grows up. Patel said she’s learned a lot from Resmondo, including the value of making mistakes and learning from them.
“I love doing experiments and actually seeing (science) instead of just learning it,” she said.