$600K in grants brings huge technology boost to programs

Vocational-technical programs are exploding with new technology at Whittier after the school was awarded more than $600,000 in competitive grant money from the state. A new engineering program got a $139,000 boost that is bringing robotics and the STEM subjects to the forefront, and the Machine Technology program is undergoing a $495,000 redesign with new equipment that features the latest computer-driven CNC components.

This will make graduates even more successful in the job market, said Machine Technology Instructor Paul Moskevitz. “We are training machinists who know how to use the technology available in the field.”

Using machines with the latest Computer Numerical Control (CNC) capability, students will be converting computer-aided designs into numbers that are then graphed to control the movement of the cutter. Some of the wifi enabled machines will even text students when a task is completed.

“These machines are a lot more technologically advanced than the old stuff,” said Machine Technology Instructor Bruce Boisselle, who graduated from the program in 2001. “It’s going to open up a lot of opportunities for our students. They will be working on machinery they wouldn’t ordinarily be able to use or have access to.”

Located on the school’s ground floor, the machine shop is being re-imagined by CAD Drafting Teacher Scott Robertson and his students to mimic a modern 6,868-square foot manufacturing facility with new flooring, ceiling, lighting and 23 new machines. The redesign and construction is slated for the next six months and is expected to be completed by September. 

Freshman Michael Dondero of  Haverhill said his excitement has been building since he chose the shop last month after completing the Freshman Exploratory Program. ““I’m going to be able to get one of the best educations in Massachusetts in machine technology,” he said. “I like machines. I like to be able to turn a piece of raw metal into a part that can be used for something.”

Upstairs, where an engineering program opened this year with 20 freshmen, students will engage in higher levels of the STEM subjects with a brand new lab, 3D printers, a bench mill, and robotic arm. They will develop prototypes in the biotechnology field and create medical devices used in hospitals, doctor’s offices, and research facilities. A nationally recognized curriculum, Project Lead the Way (PLTW), will foster in-demand skills such as problem solving, critical and creative thinking, collaboration, and communication.

“They are definitely going to gain the next level of employability skills,” said Engineering Teacher Jaylene Dos Santos. “It gives our students so many opportunities for real-world, hands-on applications. Instead of just designing a part using software on the computer, we now get to print it in 3D and hold it and analyze its effectiveness.”

Students in other Whittier programs, such as machine technology and electronics/robotics, will also benefit from use of the engineering equipment and a “maker space” lab where collaborative planning and design to solve problems using biotechnology will take place.

“Things are moving and shaking at Whittier Tech,” said Superintendent Maureen Lynch. “We are grateful to our state officials for their support of vocational-technical education and understanding the importance of funding these career-related upgrades to our programs.”

It is not only Whittier students who will benefit from the upgraded machine shop. Students enrolled in machining courses at Northern Essex Community College will study there as well as students enrolled in Whittier’s night school courses and the job training classes offered by Valley Works Career Center run by the Merrimack Valley Workforce Investment Board.

“We are re-energizing the entire program and the entire community will benefit,” said Whittier’s Vocational Director Beverly DeSalvo. Employers are already actively seeking Whittier’s machinists. “We get calls from not only Massachusetts employers, but also southern NH and Maine because they need help staffing their companies,” Mr. Moskevitz said. Five of eight seniors have co-op jobs now and two juniors will head out soon, but they can’t keep up with the demand. Students earn $11 to $14 an hour on those jobs and, once they graduate, up to $75,000 with five years of experience.

The new machinery includes two Haas Mini Mills with 4 axis CNC capabilities, seven Haas CNC control simulators, one Haas ST-15 CNC Lathe, four Acu-Rite Millpower G2 conversational CNC mills, seven Leblond Manual Lathes, an Intelitek benchmill 6000 bench top CNC mill and a Fiber Cube G3 laser marking machine. 

Mr. Moskevitz stressed that students who become proficient machinists learn the basics first. “We still have manual mills and lathes so they can understand the basics of machining and what the computers do. We don’t just want to train operators. That’s just a button pusher.”