Tom Dubick and Charlotte on How STEM Education Has Changed in the Last 30 Years

Tom Dubick flying drones with students.

STEM education for youth has gained so much attention in recent years (and rightfully so), with everyone from the White House to local after-school clubs singing the praises of hands-on learning. This was definitely not the case in the late 80s, when educator Tom Dubick began teaching engineering at Charlotte Latin School in North Carolina.

Dubick recalls, “When I started, there was very little interest in teaching engineering at the middle and high school level. Even at national conferences, where I was invited to speak about teaching engineering, very few teachers would show up — and some of those would leave because they had mistakenly come to the wrong room! However, my students — and their parents — loved classes where they could apply math and science to solve problems, build robots, and design airplanes. I was very fortunate that I had a school administration who supported me when there was no STEM.”

Dubick helped kickstart the engineering curriculum at Charlotte Latin in 1989, and in total has been teaching there for 29 years. Known for its excellence in college preparatory education, in fall of 2015, Charlotte Latin opened a fully outfitted student fab lab that includes four Bantam Tools Desktop PCB Milling Machines, industrial laser cutters, large-format CNC mills, vinyl cutters, and an army of 3D printers. The certified fab lab, one of only a handful of its kind in the U.S., exponentially multiplies the growth opportunities Charlotte Latin students now have.

Student using virtual reality goggles.

In contrast, Dubick remembers, “In the beginning, we taught engineering topics including simple machines, programming, robots, flight, and rockets. We usually made these things from kits. Today, we’ve moved away from kits and now focus even more on the process. While our middle school classes still tend to be topic-based, high school students are taught technical and analytical skills as well as the underlying math and science in order to pursue projects of their own choice that are relevant to them. The advent of desktop manufacturing has helped make this possible.”

Students assembling circuit boards.

Charlotte Latin Fab Lab bought their first Bantam Tools Desktop PCB Milling Machine when they began outfitting the lab. They currently use it with their high school students, but it has worked out so well that they added three more Bantam Tools Desktop PCB Milling Machines this past summer and plan to start incorporating it into middle school curriculum as well. Dubick shares, “The Desktop PCB Milling Machine learning curve has been rather smooth because of Bantam Tools Desktop Milling Machine Software. In fact, because of the intuitive and easy-to-use design, we use the Desktop PCB Milling Machine to introduce students to CNC before they can use the larger industrial CNC mills. It’s a very popular machine.”

He adds, “One of the great things about the Desktop PCB Milling Machine is how easily we’re able to use this tool to realize so many diverse ideas and projects. While being simple to use, it gives students the ability to prototype quickly and effectively in order to bring their digital projects to life. Students have made everything from circuit boards to jewelry to chocolate molds. It has also really opened doors in terms of our mechatronics and physical computing units, as students can now replace their bread- and proto- boards with their own custom circuit boards, designed and built themselves.”

Students creating bread boards for circuit project.

We’re looking forward to following the direction that Dubick and others at Charlotte Latin take in furthering hands-on STEM education for youth, as well as seeing what the brilliant young minds there create. Dubick shares, “As our classes continue to grow and improve, we want our students to have more access to tools that will help them realize their ideas. I’m confident they will make projects that I can’t even imagine. In addition, some of the creations coming out of the fab lab are creating buzz around the school. More kids are interested in seeing what these tools can do, including our art students. Adding more machines means more students engaged in the classroom.”

Tom and Sandy Dubick starting the Young Engineers of Today.

Aside from his groundbreaking work at Charlotte Latin, Dubick and his wife Sandy started the Young Engineers of Today program, offering students extracurricular opportunities to gain 21st-century skill sets. Dubick explains, “My goal has always been to help make the next generation of engineers and programmers. I wanted to reach more kids than just my wonderful Charlotte Latin students, so my wife and I formed Young Engineers of Today to help students of all abilities engage in STEM, using the latest technologies. Students are challenged with hands-on, minds­on projects that teach real-world skills in an academic context. Our program is designed to inspire students to go from being technology consumers to technology creators.”

Tom Dubick teaching students about soldering.

It’s safe to say that the world could always use more educators as inspired and inspiring as Tom Dubick.