Academy Director Increases Student Hope and Engagement with Hands-On Engineering

Learn to Solder Kits recently donated a set of our kits to an Ohio school that provides meaningful opportunities to underserved youth. We chatted with the director to find out more about his school’s background and his inspiration for teaching engineering.

In this interview, he explains how the academy uses engineering to help students discover new passions, cope with trauma, and make healthy life choices. Check out our discussion with John Sorvillo of Westwood Preparatory Academy below.

 Emma: Tell us a bit about your school.

John: We partner with existing residential facilities to provide specialized education for their residents. We focus on trauma-informed care and we provide credit recovery platforms to get at-risk students caught up and graduation ready as quickly as possible. Our company’s vision statement is “To inspire hope through education.” 

We want these students to know that there is a path forward, past their trauma and their charges, to a healthy and productive life. We have a small school that helps girls who have been recovered from human trafficking and we have a large school to the south of the state that helps very low functioning kids get ready to live as independently as possible. Our entire company works for a population that often goes unseen and unacknowledged.

Emma: What can you tell us about your students’ backgrounds?

John: Our age range in our schools goes from 4th grade to 12th grade. 99% of our students are in county custody, meaning they’ve been removed from their homes. Either the parents have given up their rights or are completely missing. The building is their entire world while enrolled with us. Our job is to educate and hopefully keep their spirits up while doing so.

Emma: How did you first get involved with 3D printing and other maker skills?

John: We bought our first 3D printers because we had a grant that needed to be spent. I had no idea what we were getting into. I fell in love with the technology and sort of commanded my teachers to start using it. I saw the career and technical education value, but also the therapeutic value as well. 

These kids enjoy working with their hands and the sense of accomplishment that comes from visualizing a design, creating it through TinkerCAD, then bringing it into reality through the printers.

 Emma: How does your program work?

John: We have a dedicated lab space where we have several 3D printers and some really nice workspaces. We incorporate it into our regular curriculum as much as possible. With our classes only being 3 hours, we need to cover as much as possible. We’re still beholden to the same standards that a traditional school must meet, so we need to be really creative. We’re also dealing with students who either have gaps in their education, have special needs, or just have really poor attitudes toward school. This means our lessons need to be focused and engaging, or the kids will simply check out on us. Project-based learning is our best weapon against this, and our maker space is really effective in drawing the kids in.

 Emma: What inspired you to start your maker program?

John: My inspiration to take this program as far as possible definitely came out of my AMUG experience. I applied for a scholarship to the Additive Manufacturers User Group (AMUG), won, and that’s where things really took off. 

I had to deliver a presentation in front of about 500 people. It was while on stage that I revealed why I’m so passionate about helping these kids. I admitted for the first time publicly that I, too, am a survivor of sexual abuse, so I know firsthand what these kids are going through, and I don’t want them to make the same mistakes I did. 

I had never before admitted my own abuse publicly. My wife, my mother-in-law, and my therapist were the only people who knew. The AMUG community really lifted me up and empowered me. I truly do see myself bringing therapeutic career tech education to many more kids than the 40-70 a year who come through my school.

 Emma: What do you hope your students will gain from this program?

John: I hope my students will see a path to a healthy life. I don’t have them long enough to guide them as far as I want. My goal is to show them that a path for them exists. That there is hope for them, and for everyone. I can’t walk them to a job, but I can help them believe in themselves and nudge them onto a trajectory towards a good life. Hope. Hope is my goal.

 Emma: What advice do you have for others wanting to bring hands-on STEM education to their school?

John: Advice for others? Jump in! The best way to learn anything is to do it. We learn as much as the kids do somedays. We’re by no means experts in CTE, but we learn and refine with each lesson. We’ve really strengthened our relationship with our kids by admitting we don’t know everything. Mistakes are proof of learning. Also, ask for help. There are so many good people out there willing to help. My program would be nothing without all the external support I’ve received!

 Emma: How can people support this program?

John: The response I received from the Additive Manufacturing community was overwhelming. So many people stepped forward to ask how they can help. We’ll take any resources we can, since our funding is extremely limited. We’re basically educational scavengers. I have dreams of bringing this platform to more kids. There are residential centers all over the country, loaded with kids like mine (like me, really) who would flourish with this sort of opportunity.

I’ll find a way to reach more kids soon, I sincerely believe it!

We’re glad to be able to support the students at Westwood Preparatory Academy, and we’re grateful to John for opening up about the challenges of specialized education for children with trauma. If you’d like to support his efforts to increase access to STEM learning, you can purchase items from the program's Amazon Wishlist.