When Cory Culbertson, M.S. ’03, first started teaching at University High School (U-High) in 2001, technology courses had a very traditional vocational focus. Through the years, however, he held many conversations with faculty in Illinois State University’s engineering technology program and realized the state of education in this field was moving away from a traditional model to a more engineering/pre-engineering model. Culbertson, who holds degrees in mechanical engineering and technology education, spent his early career as a product and test engineer before coming to U-High.
“We’re always looking to make adjustments and tweaks to our curriculum based on the needs of our students, but the bulk of the work to transform into a pre-engineering program took place about 10 years ago,” said Culbertson.
A major catalyst to enabling the change to a more engineering focused program was a donation from John and Jeanne Wroan in 2007. This donor gift allowed U-High to renovate their facility and laboratory spaces and enabled additional curriculum and programs that couldn’t be offered before.
“This gift allowed the program to answer the question of what engineers actually do on a daily basis,” said Culbertson. “It enabled the program to develop a more exploratory focus, helping students decide if engineering is a field they want to consider long term.”
U-High’s program is made up purely of electives and is available to any student in grades 9-12. The program usually serves around 125 students each year, which is significant considering the school’s total enrollment of 620.
Culbertson is excited that there has recently been more collaboration with courses offered in the physical aspect of engineering alongside the virtual aspect of computer science. These fields contain a great deal of overlap and set students up to explore areas such as robotics, machine learning and other more advanced topics.
Upper-level students in the program can also take advantage of a partnership with State Farm. U-High students who work with a mentor from the company have developed individual research projects such as one that utilized artificial intelligence to develop a neural network capable of diagnosing diseases of the eye like glaucoma and macular degeneration.
Attendees of local parades also may have seen the performance car that was built from the ground up by U-High students in the program a few years ago. The car has been effective in training students in a variety of areas, especially using the car’s computer for data acquisition. The car itself is not just for learning though, it is actually street legal and licensed with university plates.
Culbertson also sees many more possibilities for collaboration on campus with the announcement of the a new College of Engineering at Illinois State.
“I’m personally thrilled about the possibility of building something here that could really take off and grow a legacy in the future,” said Culbertson.
Culbertson sees a variety of ways that U-High’s program could collaborate with the new college while maintaining the relationships it currently enjoys with the Engineering Technology program at Illinois State. Shared facilities, shared equipment, and curriculum alignment between the programs are all opportunities that he envisions.
“There are so many opportunities that are available to develop future engineers,” said Culbertson. “I’m hopeful that there is a great niche to capitalize on the value reputation at ISU.”