two students do measurements for woodworking

Kulshan Middle School students are sawing, sanding, drilling and more in the woodworking class with career and technical education (CTE) teacher Rob Hendricks. This is one Kulshan CTE course of many in a program that has steadily expanded over the past four years. These courses are now popular elective choices for students. Career and technical education courses are an important part of advancing science, technology, engineering and math education, also known as STEM.

STEM Program in Action

Teacher, Rob Hendricks
Teacher, Rob Hendricks

Four years ago, Kulshan’s STEM program consisted of 30 laptops in a regular classroom. Two years ago, the program expanded to two classrooms with new equipment. Last year, the Kulshan program received a generous donation of a second laser cutter. The program has added more hand tools, a Canon photo printer and DSLR camera, a vinyl cutter and woodworking tools.

“Over the past four years at Kulshan, the CTE program has made significant improvements and is a wonderful example of a STEM lab that allows students to explore many technical disciplines,” said Director of Career and Technical Education Jeff Tetrick.

Most of the projects in the STEM lab (other than woodworking) revolve around the use of Rhino, a 3-D design engineering software program. This engineering software is used by students in Hendrick’s woodworking class and also by students in Tara Vaughan’s design engineering class. 

“Middle school students are at a crucial developmental stage when they are just beginning to develop the ability to conceptualize three-dimensional objects and manipulate these objects in their mind,” Hendricks said. “It is important to begin introducing students to design engineering using a two-dimensional plane. Gradually, three-dimensional design challenges are introduced to their original two-dimensional projects, which allows the student’s abilities to progress.”

The woodworking class at Kulshan is designed to be a yearlong course. This allows students to be properly trained and prepared to work on the equipment, increasing their skills and knowledge to make it as safe as possible while working on class assignments.

Students start with small projects, such as the castle project. This project encourages free-form thinking that allows students to begin to understand and apply basic Rhino commands (the 3-D design software). After the castle project, students work on projects of increasing difficulty, introducing new skills and reinforcing already mastered skills.  The computer name-tag lesson teaches students to import designs and objects to create personalized name-tags for their one-to-one device. Next students work on computer signs. Students use their knowledge of importing and creating designs for use on a flat object, but also learn to design flaps, folds and to input raster and vector commands. These flat objects, when combined, will stand on their own. 

To reinforce their learning, students work on clocks, free-standing letters, key chain tags with wave patterns and coasters. Some of these projects are produced on the laser cutter and some on the 3-D printer. The coaster project introduces students to the process of sanding, staining and sealing wood projects which is important for projects moving forward.

“By gradually introducing these more complex design projects, the students are presented with greater conceptual challenges regarding 3-D spatial relationships,” Hendricks said. 

The final challenge is making their projects move through marble runs, towers and catapults. All of these projects must meet certain design specifications in order to fulfill the assignment and working in teams is also introduced.

“Cooperation and teamwork is vital in problem-solving, so our students are encouraged to responsibly engage with one another when trying to resolve problems that inevitably arise during the design process,” Hendricks said. “Early on, students learn that they should expect and embrace failure which is a key part of the design process.”

Tetrick said students coming out of the Kulshan program are passionate about STEM and are choosing electives in high school that build on this career pathway.

Preparing for college and/or career

In addition to the assignments and classroom projects, Hendricks has invited industry professionals to present to his classes. He said the visiting industry professionals provide students with a chance to hear about the hard work and perseverance it takes to have a STEM-related career and also how enriching the careers can be. Hendricks has invited district carpenters and a former Tesla engineer to his class.

“When a successful welder, carpenter, or engineer stands before them and says, ‘I struggled with math’ or ‘when I was in school, I had to go to special classes for reading,’ or ‘I am ADHD,’ the students can identify with these challenges and realize that these professionals are successful despite their challenges and not because they had a life free of challenges,” Hendricks said.

Hendricks explained that there can be a disconnect between the work-related skills that are learned in the classroom and the soft skills business leaders are looking for in future employees. These soft skills can include tucking in your shirt, arriving to work on time, behaving professionally and understanding the how the workplace functions. These are some of the skills that he believes students need for a successful high school or college to work transition.

“By developing a closer relationship with business professionals, ideally this disconnect can be eliminated,” Hendricks said. “So, STEM learning can evolve from a student not only learning how a computer program functions, to also learning how to successfully function themselves in the work place. Students are learning initiative, spatial relations, persistence and collaboration.  As they continue to hone these skills, it is my hope that they will find success in the workplace of the future.”

Bringing equity to STEM

Teacher, Tara Vaughan
Teacher, Tara Vaughan

In addition to woodworking at Kulshan, students can take design engineering courses taught by Tara Vaughan. These courses encourage students of all backgrounds and perspectives to engage in hands-on engineering design and construction.

“With a master’s degree in math education, I’m passionate about bringing elements of science, math, engineering and technology (STEM) into students’ lives in relevant ways,” Vaughan said.  “I’m equally committed to promoting equity in STEM pursuits.”

Vaughan explained that women have been traditionally underrepresented in STEM-related careers. Employers and post-secondary education institutions are hoping to close that gap and it is Vaughan’s mission too. At Kulshan, Vaughan has spearheaded the Creators and Innovators Club which encourages middle school girls to explore STEM activities at an early age. Vaughan, along with along with Sydney Cole and Andrea Frost, two Whatcom County community members and computer programmers, have facilitated the club for the past five years.

“Research suggests that one powerful way to increase women’s interest in STEM activities is to invite young women and allies, including middle and high school age girls, into STEM exploration at an early age,” Vaughan said. “Doing so has been my mission for years.”



  1. This is amazing and should be offered in every middle school in our district for any student that wants this experience! Our incredible FMS STEM teacher, Jenna Samora, also works tirelessly to bring these wonderful opportunities to students and offers multiple clubs outside of school to open them up to even more students. Thank you to all of the passionate enrichment teachers who are working incredibly hard, often part-time and split between multiple buildings, to enrich the lives of our students. It would be wonderful to have multiple year-long and semester-long CTE, music, art, and exploratory language opportunities open to ALL students, in all middle schools, during this critical stage of development, before they start to select courses for high school.

  2. It is exciting to know that middle school kids have the opportunity to connect the skills that they are learning to the real world- what incentive that will give! This was a very encouraging article to read. Keep up the great work!

  3. This sounds like a fantastic program and elective opportunity for kids at Kulshan. I’m thrilled for them. But I’m frustrated that these same opportunities aren’t offered at the other middle schools. Our son attends Fairhaven and I’ve been so disappointed in the elective options. Our son has taken Art and Technology for 3 years in a row at Fairhaven (we made the inexperienced error of not choosing band or orchestra in 6th grade…so he was then forced down an elective path with little options) and in his experience, the Technology elective has been redundant. If we truly believe in the Bellingham promise, then every middle school would offer the same opportunities, with a larger array of elective options, like what is talked about above.

    • Hi Katharine, thank you for taking the time to comment. Over the last few years, we have been growing our middle school CTE programs and adding equitable equipment and resources to each of our four middle schools. Our school buildings differ, however, on the infrastructure and lab spaces they have available, which affects what we can install. Two of our four middle schools have the traditional “shop” space while the other two are set up as maker-spaces without the industrial equipment and sawdust extraction systems. All programs have high tech laser engravers, 3-D printers and the same 3-D modeling software. We will continue to do our best to provide an equitable experience for our students no matter what middle school they attend. Our focus is exploring the possibilities with STEM education as students prepare to take electives that match their interest areas.

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