Reader view: Why choose STEM? What you learn will help you in any career

The author’s wooden glider, with flame decals.

I’d like to introduce you to the wild world of STEM at Mountlake Terrace High School. STEM (also sometimes known as STEAM) stands for Science, Technology, Engineering, (Art) and Math. While I’m writing this for a class assignment, I think you can tell I’m very excited about the program.

At our high school, students can choose from three diverse options when approaching the STEM field. Everyone in the program will start their freshman year in IED (Intro to Engineering Design) but from there, it forks into three paths: Computer Science, Biotech and Aerospace. It’s the last of those three that I’ll be highlighting here. While the other two options are certainly fine, the aeronautics pathway is the one that I chose to participate in, so that’s the one I’m best suited to describe.

Right, so aerospace — the science of what makes stuff fly (and sometimes, even what makes stuff go to space)! That’s already pretty exciting, right? IED in ninth grade gives you the basic skills to use the design process and make things, both digitally and physically. Stuff like drawing blueprints, ranking different designs, creating unique ideas that are thought of as being “outside the box,” and learning how to use the tools to bring those ideas to life. That’s about all there is to it (both because the concept of the class was relatively simple, and because my memory during the COVID times fails me (plus I personally didn’t get the full experience, because of said COVID times).

Tenth-grade POE (Principles of Engineering) delves deeper into that physical part, which I’ll provide some examples of now. POE consists of many projects that are essentially “challenges,” in the sense that you are given a goal, criteria and/or limitations, and some time to complete them (usually in a group). It’s a great class for those who aspire to make things with their hands, or who learn visually (because almost all the content is shown and spoken, not just spoken).

We not only received physical and visual examples, but we oftentimes got to recreate them with our own creative spin. To be more specific, one of the first projects of the year was designing what was essentially a Rube Goldberg machine, taking the force exerted on a string by a falling water bottle, and using it to press a stapler down on a piece of paper. Of course, the design of this device wasn’t at all practical, but it taught us how all sorts of different simple and complex machines worked (things like gears, levers, pulleys, etc). This knowledge could be applied to much more practical (but also complex) designs and projects in the future.

My next example: the dreaded, but honestly very educating, bridge project (cue the dun, dun, duuun  sound effect). So, the premise of this project wasn’t too complicated. Make a bridge that can hold a certain amount of weight. But there’s a catch. Your group of three would have to cooperate with a different group of three, from a different period, with a different teacher. Communication between groups was not easy. The lesson was essentially how to communicate with contractors or clients who are either busy or in different time zones, or other situations along those lines where working in person is difficult or impossible.

The result of this was inevitable: Everyone in our period hated everyone in their groups in the other period, and vice versa. I wish maybe I’d taken a step back to think about it in the moment, because after our bridge performed miserably, I learned the value of communication and also spending less time pointing fingers, and more time making sure the dang bridge joints were secured nicely. Somewhat of an unfun experience with that project, but I will say it was worth every second of pain to have learned such a valuable lesson.

On to Aero — a class that I’ve just about finished the first semester of. So far, it’s been a dream. Everything from paper airplane testing to wooden gliders (to which I personally added some awesome flame decals) to flight simulators (I only crashed a couple hundred times before figuring it out) to making planes with 24-inch wingspans, powered by actual motors and propellers! If that excites you, then you’re reading the correct article, and the Aero pathway is definitely a good choice for you. The class also teaches some history in how flight technology was developed, how navigation to go along with it was created, and how all the bibs and bobs of a plane (from olden-time biplanes to modern airliners) function. It’s a very interesting topic, and as someone who always loved playing around and making planes from Legos as a little kid, I can say it is truly an amazing experience.

The information that you learn from all the classes up to this point, even if you don’t end up using it for your career, will make you the coolest person at the table in any party or any conversation (or at least, the ones worth taking part in). Plus, I can say that the design process learned in IED (grade 9) and expanded on in POE (grade 10) can be applied to so many things in life, even those outside of engineering. It’s just an expansion on the scientific method, which involves hypothesizing, trial and error, and then conclusions, which most people will use in their day-to-day life without even realizing it. It’s a great tool to solve problems that we may think are just “facts of life,” and to have fun while doing so.

To wrap up, the STEM program at Mountlake Terrace is absolutely awesome. I urge you to check it out if you’re a middle schooler or the parent of a middle schooler who is still trying to figure out where you/your child will go to high school! Even if you don’t choose the aero path, that’s all right. I have friends in both of the other pathways, and they say they’re great! While we may joke around about being mortal enemies and argue about which pathway is the one to rule them all, it’s never serious, and at the end of the day, we’re all still friends. So don’t feel peer pressure to make one choice or another, and if you’re unsure which path to choose, don’t worry. There are a lot of sources online on the Mountlake Terrace High School STEM website to help inform you about what that’ll look like. There are also events from time to time at the nearby middle schools and at the high school itself that will give you the rundown on how this all works.

I hope we get to see some of you next year!

— By Benjamin Marx

Benjamin Marx is a junior, class of 2024, at Mountlake Terrace High School.


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