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Ceres Manufacturing Academy trains students how to work in the manufacturing world
Trevor Hunt looks forward to getting out of the traditional classroom setting each day at Ceres High School and spending 50 minutes of hands-on learning about manufacturing.

"It's not sitting in a classroom," Hunt said as he was holding solar panels to be fixed to a metal frame with his team. "It's teamwork. It's better than sitting in a chair taking notes."

About 90 other students in the Ceres Manufacturing Academy share the same enthusiasm for the program, a modern-day version of the wood shop classes of decades past.

"Rarely are we ever sitting in a classroom," said teacher Chris Van Meter. "We're always out here working on something."

Brad Bruton, a junior, is sold on the Academy and promotes it wherever he goes, said Principal Linda Stubbs.

The Academy is ideal for Bruton, who plans to either go into the medical field or work with technology such as energy development.

"In all honesty, I'll probably get in some type of career where I can do this every day, you know, just further technology advancements," said Bruton. "I would really love to be a tech at any type of corporation, constantly designing or improving upon existing ideas. Just pretty much innovating modern-day technology into the future of what we're going to need 25 years down the road. I'd like to be a part of that."

Bruton looks at the Academy as a "school within a school" where technical trade skills are taught. Core classes, such as history, English, math and science, are taught and there is so much communication between teachers that "there are no cracks for a student to fall through."

"It is fairly math intensive," said Van Meter of the Academy.

Bruton was the leading coordinator in designing and building a junior class solar boat project completed last week. The boat will be put in a Solar Regatta competition sponsored by Sacramento Municipal Utility District (SMUD) at Rancho Seco on May 18. Junior classmen were told to come up with a concept for the boat - which can float one student through five different events - as well as determine what design and materials would work well with a motor powered by four solar panels. With an initial budget of $1,000 and students matching that through fundraisers, students decided on a catamaran design to reduce drag on the water. Students cut plywood pieces to form the skeleton and pored high density expanding foam foam inside metal forms to create two pontoons, which were then coated with polyurethane to reduce drag.

Two-thirds of the junior class of 28 members worked on the boat while others create solar panel projects which fit in with the Academy's green energy and manufacturing focus. The program is made possible by a $600,000 state grant ($150,000 per year) from the California Partnership Academy. Ceres High School is one of only 20 California schools which were awarded the grant.

The state grant calls for half of Academy students to be "at-risk," including those struggling with grades, poor attendance or from a lower socioeconomic background.

The Academy evolved three years ago when CUSD educators went to local manufacturers - like Gallo Winery across the river - and asked how schools can better prepare workers for Stanislaus County employer needs. Many who do the hiring for plants complained that students who directly enter the workforce are not skilled nor have a good work ethic. CUSD crafted a program designed to teach mechanical skills, application of academics to the work world and computer aided drafting (CAD). Van Meter said students are learning the development and design process used in manufacturing.

The Academy's green focus has freshmen, sophomores and juniors working on specific projects.

Seniors learn how to use wind turbines, work with solar panels and hydrogen fuel cells - all on a half-million dollars worth of equipment paid for by grants.

Juniors constructed the solar boat.

In the "Intro to Technology" class, sophomores are learning mechanics, robotics and pneumatics. As a team, students are charged with creating a system whereby a robotic arm picks up an aluminum can and guides it into a hydraulic crusher, and push it into a bin in the most effective way possible. The task, which includes a complete electrical schematic and pneumatic design, has captivated Sara Graham, who has her eyes on becoming an auto mechanic and who is rebuilding a 1957 Chevy with her dad. Graham said while frustrating, the project work is fun. "We get to learn a lot of new things and how to solve problems as they come along," said Graham.

"It's a simple concept that takes a lot of things that they've worked up through the entire year and put it all together," said Van Meter. "These are commercial type products. These are products you'd see in a manufacturing plant."

Andre Torres spent time doing trial and error programming of the robotic arm to properly pick up a can and place it in the crusher.

"It requires a lot of patience," said Torres as the can fell to the floor.

"Part of this is also learning how to (computer) program," said Van Meter.

Jessica Raper, who is working on the electrical components of the can crusher project, said as unlikely as it sounds, what she is learning will come in handy if she becomes a forensic anthropologist.

Outside the shop, senior students were assembling solar panels into off-grid solar power systems. They were mounting panels to 30 degrees, and using an inverter, in charge controller and battery bank. The unit becomes a portable source for 800 watts or 7 amp of electricity.

"They should be able to power a DJ and some speakers ... or any two-pronged plug," said Van Meter. "They are putting together the system. They'll do all the wiring, do all the mounting. We had the metal shop build the bottom portion of this. They mounted these racks. They put together the battery box and then they'll completely wire the entire set together without hurting themselves because now we're talking some serious energy and power here."

Another team of students was working on a roof-mounted solar system.

Academy director Amanda Moore said the academy will expand next year with a class for freshmen.

The CHS Academy has also forged a connection between students and business leaders. Over Thursday pizza, businessmen from Gallo, Frito-Lay and Seneca Foods interacted with students.

Tom Nett, the Human Resources manager at Seneca, dropped by to provide some guidance and direction to students.

The Academy recently placed eight students in paid internships with Gallo Winery.

CUSD set the stage for the Academy by winning several state grants and obtaining 50/50 funding for the rehabilitation of the mechanical classrooms. The state provided $6.86 million to buy equipment and modernize the CHS shop buildings, including converting the old auto shop into the manufacturing and ag mechanics shop for $2.4 million in 2010; renovating the metal shop for $2.4 million in 2008; and converting the old wood shop to the manufacturing classroom for $2.06 million in 2007.