Career Classroom: County vocational-technical students apply skills to make difference, produce cool products

Centered above the majestic entrance of City Hall in Jersey City is a brand-new, 4-foot light fixture specially designed to fit the aesthetics of the 126-year-old building. The fixture itself is impressive and complements efforts to upgrade the historic building while preserving its charm. What makes it even more impressive is that it was built entirely by high school students from Hudson County Schools of Technology.

About a dozen students in varying levels of welding technology courses worked to fabricate and assemble the lantern-style fixture. Their instructor, Brian Beebe, said hands-on learning is an essential part of career and technical education, but this real-world project captured students’ commitment and attention in a way that accelerated their learning. The students knew their work would become a focal point of the grand, 40-foot entryway.  

“They committed to learning about and applying their knowledge on angles, welding techniques and materials,” said Beebe. “I challenged them to use two different types of metals, stainless and sheet, to give them experience with an advanced process to weld the two together.”

Jersey City Mayor Steve Fulop initiated the conversation with Beebe and his students to design and build a light fixture to replace a small, 50-year-old lamp that was hidden under the City Hall overhang. The partnership turned into a win-win for the community, as the mayor and council brought their vision for an upgraded fixture to life while providing students with exciting, real-world work experience. They all celebrated and admired the finished product together at an unveiling ceremony in the spring.

Mayor Steve Fulop.

“The students started with just a picture and, over three months, created something truly magnificent in terms of the light fixture’s appearance and craftsmanship,” said Beebe. “They will take pride in their work for years to come and be able to show their kids and grandkids what they built.”

Beebe’s students are enrolled in the district’s High Tech High School, which offers four vocational programs of study in a technology-based environment. He said most do not enter his classes with the intent to pursue welding as a career, but instead explore career options that may include some aspect of architecture, engineering and design. Yet some do find their passion in his class and go on to secure internships to further hone their skills and move toward full-time employment in the field.

Maintaining a pipeline of welding professionals is one reason Beebe applied for the welding teacher position with Hudson County Schools of Technology. He is a second-generation ironworker who worked as a welder while in college as part of the Ironworkers Union Local 45. After graduation, he went on to become a licensed chiropractor, but continued to feel pulled toward job sites where he could contribute his welding skills, especially after 9/11. Once that pull led him into teaching, he established a schedule of maintaining his chiropractic practice after school hours.

“One great thing that came out of our project with City Hall is that my students realized they could make a living right out of high school with the welding skills they have developed; they could open a sign or a lamp business,” said Beebe. “And this project helped develop relationships with other businesses and organizations that will lead to future real-world projects for my students. We know others see value in helping students learn a trade and build skills that strengthen our community.”

About a dozen students in varying levels of welding technology courses worked to fabricate and assemble the completed lantern-style fixture.

In addition to tackling real-world projects in the classroom, county vocational-technical school students often take them on during work-based learning placements. At Bergen County Technical High School in Teterboro, part of Bergen County Technical Schools, every senior benefits from a yearlong internship. The school’s work-based learning coordinator, Andrea Buccino, helps connect students with opportunities in their field of interest.

“These internships give students the opportunity to try out a field and see if it is something they want to continue pursuing in college and as a career,” she said. “They learn important technical and professional skills, and they also discover if they like the work, often through the tasks and projects they complete. They are learning a lot by doing.”

Two students, both interns this past year at the Bergen Makerspace in Hackensack, took advantage of having a full year at the site to each complete a high-level project. Bergen County Technical Schools is among the partners working to ensure the Makerspace functions as a community learning center to bring together cutting-edge equipment, passionate educators and professionals and other community members who have interest in creating, with a goal to drive innovation. What the most recent student interns produced could inform future research, prototypes and systems that impact us all.

After talking with his mentor at the Makerspace, Piotr Lesnicki realized he could combine his interest in drones with his desire to help others. He developed a prototype of a banner that people would use during natural disasters to signal different needs to first responders. He then worked to develop artificial intelligence to recognize the banner and report the specific need and location where the call for help originated. Finally, he learned to code a drone and merge the drone’s intelligence and the AI model together.

He tested his idea in an open room at the Makerspace, and it worked: “Going forward, if someone wanted to expand on this idea, or if I wanted to pick it back up, the next step would be to store and process the information collected by the drone and determine how to get it to first responders to initiate their response.”

Lesnicki said the entire experience reinforced his decision to pursue engineering. He will attend Rutgers University in the fall.

Bill Wang, a recent graduate of Bergen County Technical High School, presents his idea at the Rutgers Conference on Climate Change about a project he completed during his senior-year internship. ­— Rutgers

His peer at Bergen County Technical High School, Bill Wang, also took on an ambitious project as a Bergen Makerspace intern. He aimed to create a breakwater that could generate electricity. He explained that breakwaters are permanent structures that exist along our coastal areas to protect against tides, waves and storm surges. He surmised that these structures may become more and more important as water levels rise and the climate changes. 

“I had the idea to combine these structures with wave energy converters to help generate renewable energy,” Wang said. “The combination would both contain the waves and create electricity in a way that could help curb the changes happening to our environment.”

To test his idea, Wang built a wave tank and then a prototype of his breakwater system using a computer-aided design model: “It was functional, but I couldn’t get a big enough voltage to generate electricity. I think a bigger prototype could get there.”

Wang will attend Johns Hopkins University in the fall, where he will major in mechanical engineering.

He said with more funding and more time he could revisit the breakwater project and possibly patent it: “As far as I can tell, this does not exist, but it has great potential and implications.”

Conversation Starters

Reach Hudson County Schools of Technology at:

Reach Bergen County Technical High School at: or call 201-343-6000.

This series on education and industry is presented by the New Jersey Council of County Vocational-Technical Schools.