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School project shines light on LEDs

| Sunday, Jan. 20, 2013, 9:59 a.m.
Shaun Valente, technology education teacher at Laurel Highlands Middle School in Uniontown, shines the light about different types of light bulbs to eighth graders (from left) Alaliyah Howell, Rayna Irwin and Katelyn Kearns. LAURA SZEPESI / For The Daily Courier

Shaun Valente will enlighten his eighth-grade students about modern electricity, thanks to a grant from FirstEnergy Corp.

Valente is one of only 18 teachers in Pennsylvania to be awarded a Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) grant. He will use the $500 to instruct his technology students about the U.S. trend toward LED lighting as old-fashioned bulbs fade away.

“LED lights are much more energy-efficient than regular bulbs,” explained Valente, who has taught technology classes for 10 years at Laurel Highlands Middle School in Uniontown. “But LEDs cost more than traditional incandescent bulbs.”

His students will learn how LED (Light Emitting Diode) bulbs differ from incandescent light bulbs, which date back to the 1880s when they were first successfully manufactured by U.S. inventor Thomas Edison and English physicist Joseph Wilson Swan.

He will also explain how LEDs and incandescents are different from CFLs (Compact Fluorescent Lights), the “curly” light bulbs that are the mainstay for lighting in many American homes in recent years.

Valente stressed that LEDs use less wattage, generate less heat and far outlast any other form of lighting. For example, a 6-watt LED produces the same amount of light as a 40-watt incandescent, using minimal energy.

LEDs can last more than 30,000 hours, while CFL “curlies” burn between 6,000 and 15,000 hours. Incandescents average only 1,000 hours by comparison.

Longtime tinkerer

As far back as he can remember, Valente has been learning about technology, blowing breakers and designing things. While growing up in Republic (near Brownsville), he was taught by a role model — his neighbor, Michael Monestersky, who owned a TV repair shop.

“Mr. Monestersky was extremely intelligent and knew how to repair any type of animate circuitry or whatever else he had to fix,” Valente said. “He showed me that something perceived as broken really isn't.”

Valente was in seventh grade when he first discovered that he wanted to teach technology education. He made an elaborate letter holder for his parents, Bob and Marlene Valente, and was hooked.

“The coolest thing I ever made was a cockpit designed around the ‘Top Gun' video game,” he remembered. He made it with an Atari hand controller hooked into a Nintendo controller.

“It was furnished with a comfortable seat and had a dashboard with other lights and gadgets. Some were useless but they looked operational. It felt like flying an actual jet,” he said. “It was awesome, especially at the age of 13!”

Such adventures in technology set the tone for Valente's education. After graduating in 1996 from Brownsville High School, he earned a bachelor of science in Technology Education from California University of Pennsylvania.

Even though many people still refer to his classes as “shop,” state education standards require a much broader curriculum compared to the old days of “wood shop” and “metal shop.”

It is unfortunate, Valente said, that state funding cuts have endangered tech-ed classes because STEM — Science, Technology, Engineering and Math — job creation is expected to outpace non-STEM job creation by a lot in the near future.

The FirstEnergy grant program is sponsored by the corporation to foster STEM education. FirstEnergy provides power to 10 distribution companies in Maryland, Ohio, New Jersey and Pennsylvania, including Greensburg-based West Penn Power Co.

“FirstEnergy is proud to provide these grants to promote science, technology, engineering and mathematics education for students,” said Dee Lowery, FirstEnergy spokesperson. “Each year, we receive outstanding applications and again this year had a difficult time choosing the winners.”

Valente is the only Fayette County teacher to receive the STEM grant; the closest others qualifying were two schools in Westmoreland County (one in Jeannette, the other in Latrobe) and one in Somerset County.

“Technology education today is taking shop a step further,” said Valente, 34, who lives in Republic with his wife, Stacey, and their 2 12-year-old son, Jacob. (The couple also has a baby on the way.)

Practical application

His enthusiasm for what he does is as electric as the LED light lesson he is teaching.

“My students leave with the pride that they have made something from nothing,” Valente pointed out. “They explore the drill press, the scroll saw and the belt sander. They make electrical circuits. Anything that you construct contains either a structure or electricity. We focus on both.”

Under his guidance, seventh-graders master a wooden tic-tac-toe project; once that project is perfected, they move on to battery-powered clocks that are cut in unique shapes, sanded, colored and given a shiny finish with water-based Minwax gloss.

In addition to learning about electricity, this year's eighth-graders will fabricate a new project designed by Valente: a gumball machine with a glass top and wooden bottom. “The project is still in the design phase; it will be completed during the current semester.”

If nothing else, LHMS technology students leave with a practical skill they will use all their lives. “About 97 percent of my students learn how to measure,” Valente pointed out. “That is an accomplishment in itself!”

Laura Szepesi is a freelance writer.

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