Engineering future engineers

Aug. 21, 2008
Say goodbye to the old high-school shop class.

In its place is a whole new curriculum aimed at steering kids toward engineering careers. Admiral King High School in Lorain, Ohio, is a case in point. A group of students recently designed and built a sophisticated robot for the First Robotics competition. For several years, the school has entered the contest, developing an agile remote-controlled robot that picks up and releases objects of various shape and size. “Robotics,” boasts instructor Bill Bogan, “is what brings students into our preengineering program.”

The classes are part of Project Lead the Way (PLTW). The national program hopes to avoid a high-tech crisis by offering a preengineering curriculum, software, and professional development to high-school and middleschool students. The nonprofit organization helps schools prepare students for high-tech careers.

Studies show that PLTW students become the kind of skilled employees industry needs to stay competitive in a global marketplace. The program also helps students test the engineering “waters” before they spend thousands of dollars on college courses. (One of PLTW’s goals is to expose students to engineering concepts while their opinions about careers are still forming.)

The program helped fire up 16-year-old Corey Smith’s problem-solving skills. Smith was tasked with creating a device that could lift a sheet of paper off the floor — and his device performs admirably. His “paper-pickerupper” uses parts scavenged from a busted photocopier.

At Lorain County JVS, a high school and adult career center in nearby Oberlin, Ohio, Clifford Karp, 17, uses a light meter to measure the efficiency of a remotecontrolled toy truck he converted from battery power to solar. In the school’s Manufacturing & Pre- Engineering Academy, students can major in computerized design and drafting, manufacturing engineering technology, precision machine technology or welding and fabrication.

The academy teaches blueprint reading, CNC and machine technology, electrical, geometric dimensions and tolerancing, quality assurance, fluid power, CAD, robotics, and more. There are also transportation, culinary, and building- trades academies.

In Tim Dale’s Introduction to Engineering class at Midview High School, students use Autocad and Inventor to design a range of items, from desktop organizers to jet engines. The atmosphere is casual but the learning is hands-on and serious.

Even more striking than the ingenuity is the students’ sense of ownership and accomplishment. Like new parents, the teenagers beam when they talk about using technology to overcome challenges.

Classroom instruction in PLTW generally consists of one part theory and two parts application. Emphasis is on problem-solving, teamwork, and project-based learning. Gateway to Technology, a five-unit PLTW middle-school program, helps sixth, seventh, and eighth graders explore math, science, and technology. The units — taught alongside rigorous academic core courses — are Design and Modeling, The Magic of Electrons, The Science of Technology, Automation and Robotics, and Flight and Space.

Pathway to Engineering, an eight-course high-school program, uses a hands-on approach to teach engineering by immersing students in complex engineering problems. The courses are Introduction to Engineering Design, Principles of Engineering, Digital Electronics, Aerospace Engineering, Biotechnical Engineering, Civil Engineering and Architecture, Computer Integrated Manufacturing, and Engineering Design and Development.

With kids like Corey and Clifford in more than 1,700 PLTW schools nationwide, the future of engineering seems assured.

Instructor Tim Dale looks over a student’s shoulder in his Introduction to Engineering class at Midview High School.

Corey Smith, 16, and his paper-picker- upper, which uses parts from a broken photocopier.

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