Crediting challenging AP classes, Michael Jernigan, a graduate of Bartow High School, isn’t surprised he’s studying electrical engineering at Florida Polytechnic University.

Jernigan is being profiled as part of a series on students who attended Polk County Public Schools and are now pursuing STEM-related degrees in colleges here and across the country.

He loved to take things apart as a kid to figure out how they worked. Now, he says, he’s able to put them back together and understand what makes them work. Jernigan attended Summerlin Academy and Bartow High School, and an engineering elective that taught him computer-aided drafting (CAD) skills. But he wishes he could have taken more.

Offering more courses that are problem-solving based — “whether it be the problems we face as a community or society in general, like climate change, renewable resources or autonomous vehicles” — is critical, Jernigan said.

“The fundamental physics, biology and chemistry courses are definitely needed, but courses like Electronics/Circuit Design, Programming, Robotics, etc., offer potential avenues to bridge students’ knowledge and interests with real-world topics.”

SlingShot Polk

Perhaps high schools can also tap into those students who desire to be contributing members of society at a young age, said Jernigan, who graduated in 2010. “I see students as a resource for creativity and new ideas that we aren’t utilizing,” he said. “We should help equip them with the tools and resources to start contributing to society now instead of waiting until they graduate high school. SlingShot Polk is a good example of a program that is trying to do just that.

SlingShot Polk, a collaborative initiative of the Lakeland Area Chamber of Commerce, the Greater Winter Haven Chamber of Commerce, the Central Florida Development Council and the United Way of Central Florida to identify and solve problems in Polk County. “Our goal is to take United Way’s three impact areas (Education, Income and Health) and bring them to the forefront for our young entrepreneurs to solve,” according to the SlingShot website.

“I have participated in every SlingShot Polk competition, two USF (University of South Florida) Daveler competitions, a Florida Blue Health Innovation competition, Catapult Microgrant and recently Florida Poly’s Great Eight Competition, earning first place with SynapCare,” he said.

Jernigan, who has won about $20,000 so far in various competitions, said he’s been “labeled a habitual student entrepreneur” who always tries to use his experiences to solve real-world problems. That’s where SynapCare comes in.

New Technologies

Jernigan and other Florida Poly students are developing SynapCare, a low-cost, wireless device that people can wear to read brain activity. The information can be used to detect mental illnesses and things like Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. They won a $2,500 microgrant from Catapult Lakeland, a business incubator started by the Lakeland Economic Development Council.

Jernigan also works with the Sensors Group at Florida Poly’s Advanced Mobility Institute, doing research into autonomous vehicles and equipped sensors. “We have been developing a Testing Framework and Lab to characterize how AVs operate in given scenarios and environments in order to improve the technology as a whole, and ultimately help facilitate the widespread adoption.”

As For The Future

STEM classes and an Electrical Engineering major aren’t easy, requiring a lot of physics and high-level math, Jernigan said. “I never considered myself good in math, but that’s not to scare students who may be interested in pursuing a degree in STEM. It took a lot of time and effort to get through some of my past classes, and even with that work I didn’t always earn an A in the course. But I walked away with tools and knowledge that I implement in my other courses.”

Even so, he wants to continue learning, possibly getting a master’s degree in Neuroscience or Biomedical Engineering with a Focus on Neural Engineering. He’s excited about the potential opportunities for grad school, research and personal development.

And a bit scared. “The scariest thing….not reaching my full potential or not making a positive impact in the world with the time I have in life.”

With Jernigan’s motivation and skills, he’s likely to be a success in whatever he does and wherever he goes. Which could be right here.

“Central Florida is definitely a great place to live, especially if you’re looking to be in an engineering field for a career,” Jernigan said. “Given our proximity to the Space Coast, Orlando, Tampa, etc., the small-town feel of Polk County offers a great place to call home.”