At southern Indiana’s Perry Central High School, students believe that “high-tech” and “high-touch” shouldn’t be mutually exclusive concepts. That contention not only has helped a number of Perry Central Commodores prepare for careers in advanced manufacturing, but it also earned the school one of the top honors in a recent national innovation competition.

The Perry Central team of Cole Johnson, Carissa Meyer, Cole Hess and Katelyn Howell claimed third place in the 2020 NeuroMaker Creative Competition, a middle- and high-school contest sponsored by BrainCo and the Harvard Innovation Lab. The annual event challenges students to tackle a socially conscious engineering problem involving a prosthetic hand.

Participating in the contest as an extracurricular activity, the Perry Central students chose to add touch sensitivity to the robotic hand’s fingertips. They researched the problem, devised a solution and adapted it to the supplied robotic hand, impressing the competition’s panel of national brain and robotics scientists.

“These are real-life, real opportunities, and that’s what I love about it,” said Ray Niehaus, the teacher who mentored the team. “The kids had a blast doing it.”

As impressive as the robotic hand project is, it’s not out of the ordinary at Perry Central. The school has made hands-on innovation and entrepreneurship a priority and actually has a small-scale business – Commodore Manufacturing – that allows students to experience the full gamut of advanced manufacturing opportunities. Whether they’re servicing a client with a specific need or developing a new product to address an identified problem, the students manage every aspect of the process, from marketing their services and resourcing materials to developing and delivering products.

The school has invested in technology and equipment to give the students practical experience, which has allowed them to function as a supplier for a wide range of businesses. Last April, the school’s additive manufacturing team went to work using a 3D printer to create COVID-protection visors that were sent to healthcare facilities in Chicago, Corydon and Tell City. Another group of students is building an electric car, and others are building a container house, which they’ll raffle off to support the program.

Making much of this possible is Niehaus. Recently named a Sagamore of the Wabash in recognition of his dedication to education, Niehaus had a career in the defense and electronics industry before trading the workbench for the classroom in 2006. As a Pike Central High School Project Lead the Way instructor, he mentored a team that won a 2012 MIT contest for designing a disaster relief shelter. A Perry Central graduate, Niehaus was delighted to return as a teacher to the school where he said principal Jody French and Superintendent Tara Bishop see the value of preparing students for a changing workplace.

“You have to have administrators who are forward-looking,” Niehaus said. “The principal and the superintendent are that kind of people.”

In addition to preparing kids for the advanced manufacturing workplace, the school encourages entrepreneurship. Niehaus proudly notes that a number of students have started their own businesses during or after high school, with some of them operating businesses while in college. In all of these activities, he said, they’re learning both the hard and soft skills necessary to succeed in the continually evolving workplace.

“I’m looking at it for the kids and for the education and what it’s going to do for the future workforce,” Niehaus said.

“It gives students purpose and changes their lives,” French said.