Preparing minds for future challenges

Project Lead the Way trains young engineers

December 10, 2003|By Tawanda W. Johnson | Tawanda W. Johnson,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Marcus Johnson Jr. thinks he wants a career as an engineer. His big brother is an electrical engineer, and Marcus, 13, enjoys the problem-solving aspects of the field.

His classmate Sigitas Rimkus, 14, hopes to become a civil engineer because he likes to build things. But Brandon Hawkins, also 14, is undecided about his future occupation. He said engineering or architecture are options.

Whatever they decide, the Howard High School ninth-graders will have a good idea of what it is like to be an engineer before they enter college. They are students in Project Lead the Way Inc., a national program based in Clifton Park, N.Y., that offers pre-engineering programs to 140 middle and 500 high schools in 38 states.

"Technology is the overriding driver of our economy ... and new technologies will be created that we're not even aware of," said Neil Tebbano, director of operations for Project Lead the Way. "And we have to ask, `Are we preparing kids to meet these ... needs?'"

Richard Blais, former chairman of the technology department of an upstate New York school district, started the project in 1997 after collaborating with public schools, higher education institutions and engineers. A foundation grant helped expand the program throughout the country.

In addition, Project Lead the Way offers teacher training, mentors for students and career shadowing and college credits for students who qualify. Among its goals are to reduce the attrition rate of college engineering programs, which exceeds 50 percent nationally.

According to a recent National Science Board report, more U.S. science and engineering professionals are needed to stem the tide of work sent aboard.

"These jobs are finding their way offshore, and it will increase unless America addresses the problem," Tebbano said.

Project Lead the Way is doing its part, he added, by partnering with schools, offering at least five engineering courses to high school students. The program now features six courses accredited by the Rochester Institute of Technology in New York. They include: introductory engineering design, digital electronics, computer integrated manufacturing, principles of engineering and engineering design and development.

Centennial High School is slated to implement its program next school year.

The occupational outlook for engineering looks good, according to the U.S. Department of Labor, with engineers generally earning at least $40,000 annually. Last year, 2 million engineers were employed in the country. The field is expected to grow by 9.4 percent by 2010, compared with an average 15.2 percent for all other occupations. At Howard High, Marcus, Brandon and Sigitas are taking "Principles of Engineering" with teacher Marvin Thorpe II.

"I have learned about the different types of engineers - electrical, civil, mechanical and environmental," Marcus said.

Brandon said he is learning that a good engineer knows how to solve problems. "We're working on our first major project. It involves taking the blueprints of a car and using a mousetrap to power them," he said.

Sigitas said the class has taught him about the machinery an engineer works with and how to record your work. "We're using the software Excel to document our work," he said.

To prepare to teach the course, Thorpe participated in a two-week training program at Penn State University. He praised Project Lead the Way for the help given to teachers.

"They make it very easy [to implement the program]," he said.

"I like teaching [this course]," he said. "I have really smart and good kids."

Tebbano said that among 60 high schools this year, Project Lead the Way students entered college at a rate of 86 percent, compared with 72 percent for the total enrollment at the same schools.

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