Project based learning prepares students for engineering careers

March 28, 2012

From gazettextra.com: “Engineering goes back to school” – Seventh-grader Deadrick Vance raised his hands above his head, signaling triumph.

“Success!” he said, turning to give his teacher a high-five.

Vance was among the first to construct a Morse code device for his science class at Janesville’s Edison Middle School recently. He had cut the wire, wrapping it around a nail, connected the paper clips and powered the system with a D-cell battery.

As he pressed down on the paperclip that acted as the key, another paper clip was drawn down onto the nail, which had become an electromagnet.

Later, teacher Andy LaChance would string wire between classrooms and let students take turns sending messages.

Vance had completed one small task in a curriculum that has been infused with a new kind of thinking: That kids can learn science and math with real-world technical skills while in middle and high school.

The curriculum is called Project Lead the Way. It has swept across the country in recent years.

Project Lead the Way seeks to address the concerns of industries that complain they can’t find enough workers with the right skills, as well as the dearth of American college graduates in science, engineering and math, said Ken Maguire, director of the nonprofit organization’s upper Midwest region.

Maguire said Project Lead the Way is growing fast, with a 20 percent increase in the region just in the past year.

But Project Lead the Way doesn’t want schools to jump in without committing themselves to quality.

“If they’re wanting it because a neighboring school has it, if they’re wanting it because voters say they want it, that is the biggest impediment,” Maguire said.

Startup costs might be $25,000 for a high school that has the computers to run the software, Maguire said.

Schools start with one course and add courses until they make a path that leads to classes in engineering in high school, giving them a base for college studies or even college credit.

Project Lead the Way is a part of middle and/or high school curriculums in many school districts in Rock and Walworth counties.

Clinton High School is the most developed program in Rock County, said Janesville’s Steve Huth, director of a countywide consortium that promotes Project Lead the Way.

During a recent visit to Clinton High School, students in one class were using a computer-assisted design program to create a simple, three-dimensional model of a railroad engine. Next door, students in a digital electronics class were using Boolean algebra to design circuits that would spell out a message, similar to the electronics used on a sports scoreboard.

Students who complete the Clinton program get advanced standing at Blackhawk Technical College, while others get credit in four-year programs, such as the Milwaukee School of Engineering, said teacher Tim Thieding.

Thieding said he started the year with 10 digital electronics students. He now has six.

“It’s a tough course,” he said.

Thieding also teaches a computer-integrated manufacturing course that takes students from invention to computer modeling to building a manufacturing process, with milling and robotics thrown in.

“Right now, manufacturing is something we need to build back up in the United States, so we need to get our students not only familiar with it but proficient,” Thieding said.

Clinton also offers certifications in architecture and civil engineering. It plans to introduce bio-medical engineering next year, and there’s talk of extending the program into the elementary grades.

“We’re kind of excited, as small as we are, to offer all those,” Thieding said.

Most Project Lead the Way teachers are certified in science or tech ed. They must go through a reportedly tough summer training program for each course they teach.

Thieding’s tech-ed colleague, Derek Tietz, also teaches Project Lead the Way courses. The pair also offer more traditional tech courses in woodworking, metals and construction.

“Project Lead the Way gives them a chance to see it before they have to really pay for it in college, so they see if they want to do this as a career,” Tietz said.

Two Clinton students have internships at Scot Forge in Clinton, and Scot Forge engineers volunteer with the program. Others are planning to pursue engineering at MSOE or UW-Platteville. Clinton also gets help from Gilbank Construction and Paperchine.

In some states, local industries donate to establish a particular kind of engineering course in local schools, but Maguire wasn’t aware of any relationships like that in Rock County.

Even one Project Lead the Way course might make a difference. It did for 2011 Janesville Parker High School grad Markus Murdy.

Murdy said the principles of engineering course was all he could work into his schedule. He said it helped him combine his interest in aviation with his desire to figure out how things worked.

“It was like, ‘Whoa, there’s a whole field dedicated to this kind of thing,’” Murdy said. “Coming out of that. I had a much better idea of what I wanted to do.”

Murdy is majoring in aerospace engineering at the University of Alabama in Huntsville.

At Edison Middle School, LaChance surveyed his students with a smile.

“Look at these guys right now,” he said, referring to a group hovering over one of their devices as the lunch bell sounded. “They’re still working on it. Usually these guys are the first ones in line for lunch.

“I like it. We need more hands-on stuff.”

SCHOOLS INVOLVED

Project Lead the Way has been introduced in several area schools, according to the Project Lead the Way online locator.

Rock County

– Beloit Memorial High School and middle schools

– Beloit Turner High School and middle school

– Evansville J.C. McKenna Middle School

– Janesville Parker and Craig high schools and all three middle schools.

– Orfordville Parkview, middle school level

Walworth County

– Delavan-Darien High School and Phoenix Middle School

– Elkhorn Area High School

– Lake Geneva Badger High School

– Whitewater High School and middle school

Green County

– Brodhead High School and middle school

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