EAST LAKE — As a child, Jonell Gregor was always taking stuff apart and figuring out how to put it back together.
Gregor's father noticed his daughter's curiosity. When she grew old enough for middle school, he encouraged her to consider East Lake High's Academy of Engineering.
It was a good move.
Gregor, 16, is now a junior and in her third year in the program that exposes students to all types of engineering concepts. She earned a spot next month in a state competition to create codes for milling machines.
"My dad wanted me to be in the academy," Gregor said. "I really didn't know much about it. But I'm glad I did. I've learned a lot."
She hasn't decided which area of engineering to pursue, but as a result of the academy, she has decided she will become an engineer of some sort.
That's the mission of East Lake's Academy of Engineering, now in its fourth year.
"The key to getting more engineers, which we need desperately, is to turn the light on for kids and that's what the program does — it turns the light on," said Charles Puccini, president and CEO of Coastal Caisson Corp., which hires civil engineers. "Getting internships at a younger age gets them the opportunity to develop earlier instead of college when it's kind of too late."
Under the direction of Paul Wahnish, a retired engineer and now East Lake High teacher and coach, the academy was pitched to the Pinellas County School Board in 2002, and became an official academy in 2006.
With its "Project Lead the Way" curriculum, the program allows students who commit to the four-year process to gain insight about mechanical, digital, electronic, aerospace, biotech and civil engineering. Students also earn college credits.
Project Lead the Way is a national engineering and biomedical sciences curriculum.
Wahnish also established the nonprofit Career Technical Education Foundation. The nonprofit's board consists of local business executives who hire engineers. In addition to Puccini's Coastal Caisson, it includes the Nielsen Co., Honeywell and Jabil Circuit, among others.
Wahnish said the nonprofit has contributed more than $250,000 to East Lake's program.
It's the relationship between the businesses and the students that sets the East Lake model apart. The students spend six weeks each summer working at one of the companies. There are assignments with the companies during the school year.
Duane Hume, state supervisor for information technology education, said the East Lake program has been taken to the next level by adding the internships.
"It's out-of-the-box thinking when it comes with these types of academies," Hume said. "They are working in the engineer field while still going to school and that makes it really engaging."
East Lake's first academy consisted of 22 students. Now there are almost 500, Wahnish said. For next year, there have been 375 applications for 150 seats.
Wahnish just helped Pasco County set up a similar academy that started this school year at River Ridge High. Plans are moving forward to create an academy at Boca Ciega High.
Many of East Lake's students learn about the academy through the school's robot building team, for which Wahnish is the mentor. The club allows students to use skills they learn to build robots and other machinery.
A team recently built a T-shirt shooting machine with a recoil like a cannon. It has been used at school athletic events.
"I know a lot of people look up to the jocks and the cheerleaders, the popular people," said Bryan Gallo, 17, a senior who will attend the University of South Florida College of Engineering. "When they saw the T-shirt machine, it was really cool for people to find out that we build robots."
Jacob Paikoff always liked to build stuff as a kid. For birthdays, he often received Lego sets. In middle school, Paikoff saw Krunch, an East Lake High student-built robot, at a Lego building tournament.
This spring, Paikoff will graduated from East Lake and head to either North Carolina State, Ohio State or Georgia Tech to study mechanical engineering.
"A lot of people leave high school without knowing what they want to do," Paikoff said. "I'm leaving high school knowing that I want to be an engineer and having a lot of experience with mechanical engineering."