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Problem-solving skills lead the way in PSH engineering program

Published on Friday, Feb. 24, 2023

student with engineer and camera
BCSD photo / Monica Kreber : Hunter Eastman (right) with Systems Engineering recently
visited Kate Sablotsky's engineering classes to show her students how his company uses
3D scanning technology.

Even if they do not want to pursue the engineering track after they graduate from Philip Simmons High, Kate Sablotsky is equipping her students with problem-solving techniques that can be applied in any subject area, and even in situations that go beyond academics.

Sablotsky is in her fifth year teaching the pre-engineering program, and she knows the critical thinking her classwork promotes is going to help her students in all aspects of life.

“I tell them all the time: ‘If you’re sitting in this room and taking these classes, you are going to be a better problem-solver than if you hadn’t,’” Sablotsky said. “Problem-solving is such a big piece of life.”

Sablotsky studied biological engineering at the University of Florida. She also has a Master’s Degree in biomedical engineering.

She taught at a community college in Virginia Beach and went through the American Board to get her teaching certificate in general science so that she could teach at the high school level. When her family relocated to the Charleston area because of her husband’s job in the Navy, she began to coach volleyball at Philip Simmons High. After a year of coaching, she took on the school’s pre-engineering program.

The program’s curriculum is provided by Project Lead the Way Pre-Engineering, also just known as PLTW, which is a nonprofit organization geared toward providing hands-on learning opportunities to students at all grade levels, with a focus on computer science, engineering and biomedical science.

Philip Simmons High’s pre-engineering program has four courses: Introduction to Engineering Design, Principals of Engineering, Aerospace Engineering and Engineering Design and Development. Students who pass all four courses become program completers.

PLTW is well-known by several big companies such as Boeing and Lockheed Martin, so completing PLTW’s pre-engineering program gives students the upper hand when they start applying for jobs and internships after high school.

The Engineering Design and Development class is ongoing this semester, and it is a class that focuses on real-world problems. Completing the class could earn the students college credit (depending on where they go to school).

“This class mirrors real close to what a freshman-level design class would be in college,” Sablotsky said.

The class has split up into teams, and each team is trying to come up with solutions for a real-world problem. The teams recently presented on the problems they aim to tackle, as well as some possible solutions that they will investigate as the semester progresses. By the end of the course, the students should have both an answer to the problem and a prototype to present to their classmates.

The teams have come up with some unique issues to investigate; one team is looking into how to keep carbonated drinks from going flat. Another team is looking for a systematic way to streamline laundry at home. One team is trying to find a way to develop water-resistant socks and another team is looking into a type of pillow that will stay cool while being used.

Their research involves finding professionals in the workforce who can serve as mentors; the team looking into the sock issue has made contact with Gildan, a sock company, and the team looking into the carbonation problem is hopeful to get in touch with a bottling company, among other examples.   

Students are being graded on how well they document their process; they should have a hefty report to turn in by the time they are done.

“I will say, in the past, the kids have come up with really cool things,” Sablotsky said, adding she has some alumni that are trying to get the product they came up with for their project last year patented.

Sablotsky’s students can pursue any line of engineering when they graduate; her Principals of Engineering class touches on multiple different college curriculums, so they learn about several different avenues of engineering.

“They know, by the time they’re done, what they really do like and what they really don’t like,” she said.

Senior Max Negreiros is about to be one of Sablotsky’s program completers. He is the lead programmer on the robotics team – for which Sablotsky is the advisor – and is considering studying computer science and/or physics in college before pursuing a job working with artificial intelligence.

Negreiros said he loves that his engineering classes are self-guided. student on tablet

“I just think, as a person, I’m more independent – I like doing things by myself,” he said, adding that he would recommend the program to underclassmen. “I think it develops a lot of the ideas that you’d need for any STEM field – like problem-solving (and) being creative with what you’re doing."

Junior London Toperzer recently finished the Aerospace Engineering class and plans on taking the final course next year. She has a shared role on the robotics team where she helps in different areas as needed. Toperzer is hoping to go into chemical engineering and eventually work with rockets.

Toperzer also enjoys the self-guided pace in the classes, saying Sablotsky is one of the best teachers she has ever had.

“I would recommend (the program) because it’s more hands-on learning and you use it in all of your other classes…it’s like an advanced learning (experience),” she said.

Sablotsky’s favorite part of engineering is appealing to minorities in the field; Sablotsky said she was one of three female engineers – out of a total of 32 students – who graduated from her college’s program, and there were only two women in her graduate lab.

Sablotsky stayed home for nine years to raise her three children. When she was looking for a job, she saw it two ways: “I could either go back to work – and be one good engineer, or I could make a lot of good engineers.”

So she became a teacher.

When she first started teaching at Philip Simmons High, Sablotsky had no girls involved – now she has a ton! She even has three junior varsity volleyball eighth-graders who are looking forward to joining next year as well.

And she remains one of students’ biggest cheerleaders even after they graduate.

“That’s my favorite part – watching these kids go on and do something great,” she said.

Monica Kreber