Education Leads the Way

Introduced in 12 New York High Schools a Decade Ago, Project Lead the Way’s Curriculum Now Is Offered in Almost Every State

By Mike Bacidore, managing editor

Not since the launch of Sputnik I by the Soviet Union has the U.S. been so geared up to increase the science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) skills of its next generation of workers.

As the walls of the Cold War came crashing down, it revealed a new world in which other countries had been busily upgrading their science and technology competencies.

The number of people with a higher education science degree per 100,000 employed 25-to-34-year-olds in the U.S. is 1,100 for university-level qualifications and 301 for non-university tertiary qualifications, such as a vocational associate’s degree, according to the most recent statistics from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (oecd.org), a 46-year-old international organization that provides comparison economic and educational data to governments. Both figures are significantly below the corresponding OECD averages of 1,295 and 384.

Yet, spending on educational institutions in the U.S. as a percentage of GDP was at 7.4% in 2004, the second highest level among OECD countries. For the U.S., educational expenditure has matched or exceeded growth in national income so that the percentage of expenditure relative to GDP has increased over the years from 6.6% in 1995 and 7.0% in 2000. This is not true of all OECD countries as one-third of the countries with available data saw expenditure as a proportion of GDP decline over this period.

For the past six months, we at Control Design have championed the search for useful programs and organizations designed to motivate and nurture the engineers of tomorrow. But education really is at the root of the issue. And how do you point an educational system in the right direction? Who will lead the way?

Innovation Generation

Project Lead the Way’s curriculum was first introduced to 12 New York State high schools in the 1997-’98 school year. Today, its programs are offered in almost every state in schools that number in the thousands.
“We had 14 teachers participate this year,” says David Butler, chief executive officer of Linking Education & Economic Development (leed.org) in Sacramento, Calif. LEED comprises one-third employers, one-third educators and one-third civic partners and is focused on defining regional work force needs and aligning education to meet them. Those needs in the six-county Sacramento area include health care, construction and infrastructure and the STEM industries.

“Most of the teachers had to go to training, explains Butler. “There’s a thirst among educators to deliver education in a new way, through project-based learning because students don’t go for the chalk-and-talk any more. There’s intense competition for their attention any more. You need to deliver education in a way that really pops. Project Lead the Way pops. It impacts the students who don’t necessarily learn by sitting in a desk and reading.”

What’s so different about PLTW? The 10-year-old, not-for-profit organization’s curriculum is based on a three-pronged methodology comprising activities-based learning, project-based learning, and problem-based learning, designed to make math and science relevant for students by engaging them in hands-on, real-world projects to which they apply the skills they’ve learned in the classroom. Courses expose students not only to mechanical and electrical engineering, but also to other engineering disciplines within building and construction and civic infrastructure.

PLTW offers six courses in its high school pre-engineering program. Introduction to engineering design, principles of engineering and digital electronics are cover in the foundation courses. Computer integrated manufacturing and civil engineering and architecture fall under the specialization courses. And engineering design and development is offered as its capstone course. PLTW’s professed goal is to increase the quantity, quality and diversity of engineering technologists graduating in the U.S.

“We’ve identified a curriculum that helps prepare students for careers in engineering,” says Butler. “The value of Project Lead the Way is it’s a nationally recognized turnkey solution that exposes students to engineering concepts and careers in engineering. What we’re doing that’s different is we’re implementing it regionwide to scale in Year 1.”

The Sacramento implementation spans 14 school sites across six different districts impacting 1,000 students in the first year. “Our intent is to create a competitive advantage for our region by creating a STEM pipeline from K-12 to higher education and into the research because we want to grow the full spectrum of technology industries here in our region – from information technology to defense, clean and green industry and bioscience,” says Butler. “We sent letters to every school district in the region, inviting them to help us implement Project Lead the Way. We got responses from these six districts. We raised $177,000 from private sector employers in this region to pay for teacher training. Some donations, such as computers, were in-kind.”

LEED hosts periodic meetings of the teachers, in addition to regular meetings with all partners, as it attempts to continue building the program. “We have two additional school districts that are interested in implementing in 2008 or 2009,” says Butler. “The biggest challenge employers have is to find the employees to fill their needs, particularly in the engineering field. We want to grow the full spectrum of engineering. Because of the need to grow the innovation economy and because of the demographic shifts, regions around the country are going to be in competition for a work force, so it’s more important than ever to grow your own and educate young people within our community for jobs within our community. We’ll create a competitive advantage for our employers and for our economy and for our community. And Project Lead the Way is not just some curriculum we’re implementing. It’s part and parcel of a regional economic development strategy.”

Engineers in the Classroom

Employers such as Lockheed Martin (lockheedmartin.com), Bethesda, Md., recognize a good thing when they see it. “Project Lead the Way’s track record of preparing students for college engineering programs is unparalleled” says Jim Knotts, director of corporate citizenship at Lockheed Martin, which employs more than 70,000 engineers, technicians and scientists. “Project Lead the Way students are five times more likely to major in engineering than the national average, their freshman-to-sophomore retention rate in the degree is over 80%, or double the national average, and their freshman GPA in engineering study is greater than that of their peers.”

Lockheed Martin was, in fact, so impressed by PLTW’s success that it has partnered with the organization on Engineers in the Classroom, a K-12 education outreach initiative. In communities near Lockheed Martin’s major business locations in New York, Maryland, Texas, Colorado, Minnesota and California, the corporation is working with schools that have or will implement the Project Lead the Way curriculum, which is the basis of the Engineers in the Classroom initiative. In those same schools, Lockheed Martin will supplement the curriculum by supporting hands-on extracurricular activities which encourage teamwork and supply relevance for the engineering principles learned in the classroom.

The piece that connects the academic rigor and the hands-on relevance is the relationship created between Lockheed Martin engineers and the students. Going into classrooms as guest lecturers and coaching extracurricular teams, the engineers will be role models and mentors for students. As subject matter experts, Lockheed Martin engineers can also serve as advisors for teachers.

Starting mostly with high schools and expanding to their feeder middle schools, the Engineers in the Classroom initiative creates a pipeline that offers the opportunity for seven continuous years of student involvement on the pathway to engineering. A scholarship will help bridge students from high school into college.

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