What does STEM represent?

It’s science, technology, engineering and mathematics – and now a “mini-chopper.”

Anthony Cooks and his machine tools students at the Aiken County Career and Technology Center have constructed the intriguing small motorcycle – complete with a seat artfully modified from one on an exercise bike.

Three members of the Leadership Aiken County class of 2012 were pleased to see the mini-chopper before presenting a $500 check to Cooks and his class for his great idea.

“It’s fantastic to see how engaged these students are,” said Jennifer Hart.

She was joined at the Career Center with Leadership classmates Jason Rabun and Joann Williamson and by Jeff Howell, the director of Public Education Partners. Each Leadership class is required to choose a community project, and all the class members agreed to provide Great Ideas grants every year. They worked with Howell to seek applications from teachers.

“We wanted to raise funds to distribute grants to teachers in K-12,” Hart said. “This is the first, and it’s a key example of what is needed in classrooms to get students excited about STEM.”

Leadership is also awarding grants to two more teachers – Lisa Raiford at the Center for Innovative Learning at Pinecrest, and Brandy Johnson of J.D. Lever Elementary School.

As it happens, both are special education teachers, with Johnson working with preschoolers who are 3 and 4.

“Brandy’s grant will focus on math and science, using Leapfrog’s Leapster,” said Lever principal Renee Mack. “The children have a positive attitude toward science. We also want to use math so they’re able to solve problems and develop logical thinking. This technology will assist these children who have a curiosity about things they can’t always express.”

Career Center faculty members have benefitted from other partners as well, said director Brooks Smith. He’s proud of Cooks, who like many other teachers on campus, completed the machine tools program himself in the 1990s. Cooks then worked as a machinist for 14 years before joining the Career Center staff in 2011.

“When the kids come in on the bus, they make a beeline to his class and get ready to start work,” Smith said. “They don’t want to miss it.”

Cooks focuses on providing his students hands-on skills. This time, he wanted them to take part in a real-life project where they could collaborate together and work as they learned.

“We’ll take the mini-chopper to school nights to promote more kids in coming to the center and hopefully work with our machines,” Cooks said. “This grant will help us in the future for additional equipment to build one or two more mini-choppers. I’m just so delighted about this grant.”

Cooks’ seniors designed and built the motorcycle, getting a big assist from the juniors, among them Cal Shipp, a North Augusta High student.

“It was great to see it all come together,” he said. “I ride off-road dirt bikes and this is a street chopper. I’m ready to ride and I’m ready to build one in class next year.”

Williamson and Rabun already have found the grant project a significant boost for teachers.

“With (Jeff Howell’s) help, we did research on how to make some STEM projects work for students,” Rabun said. “Now we’re seeing the dollars put to work. It’s a tangible way to provide math and science.”