JACKSON — Sarah Wolverton furrowed her brow and leaned toward the computer screen of the boy to her right. A machine he was designing to display phone number digits wasn’t working.
“It should work … did you have a C-3 output?” she asked before concluding, “I don’t think those flip-flops work.”
On a typical day in digital electronics class at Jackson Hole High School late last month, students used computer software to build mathematical models of computations used to design computer programs and sequential logic circuits. Otherwise known as state machines, students used the models to cycle through the last four digits of their phone numbers.
“It sounds really simple, but it’s not,” John Koerber said. State machines are what make such devices as elevators and traffic lights work. The project would get more complicated for their final when they would work on a state machine for a toll booth and build it not just digitally, but physically.
Jackson Hole High is considered a Wyoming leader in STEM — a program that integrates science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) with a focus on solving problems like professionals do in the real world.
The Jackson curriculum features engineering, electronics and architecture classes, a robotics program and opportunities for students to work with scientists and conduct experiments for NASA. Plans call for a digital fabrication lab scheduled to open at the school this fall. It will feature computers, three-dimensional printers, laser engravers and milling machines. Activities could range from building a three-dimensional cell model for biology class to making just about anything, teacher Gary Duquette said.
The digital electronics class teaches the fundamentals of “basically every computer circuit ever,” Koerber said.
Like real computer circuits, the students’ software versions don’t work unless everything is properly connected.
Junior William Horstmann ran his hands through his hair and sighed, staring at his screen.
“You just have to look at the up, the load clear, up and down,” classmate John Turner told him.
“I’m looking at them,” Horstmann said.
“No one really understands all of it at once,” Koerber said, adding that classmates work together to make sure they all understand in the end.
Koerber said the necessary skills complement his algebra II class, but the best part is being able to look at an elevator or a vending machine and know how it works.
“Because, until you actually start learning about it,” he said, “it’s just, you know, computers are magic smoke.”
Koerber also participates in RoboBroncs, the school’s robotics team. They had six weeks to build a flying disc-tossing robot, and they qualified for the FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) International Championship in St. Louis.
Students can participate in a variety of related activities often involving professionals in STEM fields. A highlight is the annual STEM night, when students demonstrate and discuss their projects with community members, including engineers.
Some seniors in the engineering design and development class this spring got to take an experiment for a ride in NASA’s zero-gravity airplane in Houston, Duquette said. Students help NASA find ways to build machine parts in space through a program called High School Students United with NASA to Create Hardware, or HUNCH. The Jackson seniors proved it’s possible to make a machine part in zero gravity using magnetic fields to mold wax mixed with magnetic fluid. They created a wax washer.
Koerber looks forward to when he can attend that class beginning this fall. He worked with a group of other juniors as an extracurricular activity this year to take the senior class’s experiment to the next stage. They collaborated with a lab in Oklahoma to create more solid machine parts in zero gravity.
Meanwhile, freshmen and sophomores taught themselves quantum physics in another extracurricular activity, Duquette said. They continued doctoral thesis work through Skype of a Cornell University researcher on aerospace engineering methods to help spacecraft dock more smoothly.
“She’s teaching my freshmen how this stuff works,” Duquette said of the researcher. “There are so many cool things that kids can do nowadays.”