HUNTINGTON, W.Va. – Students in Mona Evans’ classes at Huntington and Cabell Midland high schools are not content to sit quietly while their teacher lectures. As students in the Project Lead the Way program, they are exploring engineering at a younger age in hopes that they will chose engineering or other science fields as a career.
“One of the first projects students have to do is create a three-dimensional puzzle from a block of wood that can be taken apart and put back together,” Evans said. “No two are alike. They quickly learn there is no one way to solve a problem.”
Project Lead the Way, which started in New York in 1997, offers students the opportunity to apply their math and science knowledge in a hands-on, practical setting. The flexible curriculum is a sequence of pre-engineering courses that, when combined with college preparatory mathematics and science courses in high school, introduces students to the scope, rigor and discipline of engineering and engineering technology prior to entering college.
The program works well with West Virginia’s 21st Century Learning program that emphasizes projects over traditional teacher-centered lessons. It instead focuses on activities that are interdisciplinary, student-centered and integrated with real world issues.
Approximately 3,000 schools in 50 states and Washington, D.C., participate in the program. West Virginia has about 225 students enrolled in schools in Cabell, Fayette, Kanawha, Marion, Mineral, Ohio, Putnam and Randolph counties. Mercer and Nicholas counties will be added in the fall.
“Classes like this that use math and science in hands-on activities are critical to preparing today’s students for the 21st century,” said state Superintendent of Schools Steve Paine. “We must encourage our next generation of leaders to study math, science and engineering so that they are prepared for deeper levels of scientific investigation and understanding.”
Project Lead the Way bolsters the more exploratory engineering classes offered in the career technical education with more rigorous, specialized coursework. Students learn the link between science and math in engineering. They do research, brainstorm ideas, design something, make a model and test it. They learn to use the latest industry software. More in-depth courses allow students to explore civil engineering, including designing and building bridges.
The program is one of many approaches West Virginia is using to boost interest in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). Superintendent Steve Paine, along with Senate Education Chairman Robert Ply male, D-Wayne, and House Education Chairwoman Mary Poling, D-Barbour, are part of a recently formed coalition of legislators, higher education, K-12 educators, business and other stakeholders whose goal is to promote math, science and engineering education in the state.
Efforts to improve STEM education come at a time when the national is facing a critical shortage of engineers. The National Science Foundation estimates that a shortage of engineers in the United States will reach 70,000 by 2010.
Rural areas, like West Virginia, often have an even greater difficulty attracting engineers and scientists because many of the jobs are concentrated in metropolitan areas on the East and West coasts.
A recent survey of youth and adults conducted for the American Society for Quality found that part of the problem is kids and their parents don’t really understand what engineering is all about.
Survey results indicate the top reasons why kids may not be interested in pursuing engineering:
*Kids don`t know much about engineering (44 percent).
*Kids prefer a more exciting career than engineering (30 percent).
*They don`t feel confident enough in their math or science skills (21 percent) to be good at it even though the largest number of kids ranked math (22 percent) and science (17 percent) as their favorite subjects.
Project Lead the Way helps combat that uncertainty by allowing students to explore the different aspects of engineering. Those who do soon learn engineering is much more than they thought.
“The students constantly amaze me with their creativity,” Evans said. “You see them making the connections between what they’ve learned in their math and science classes and how they can apply it in the real world. It is 21st Century Learning.”