Project Lead the Way Helps Pique an Early Interest in Engineering

Project Lead the Way Helps Pique an Early Interest in Engineering
Teacher David Boe works with Max Rock during Project Lead the Way Summer Training Institute.
Ron Legaspi works on a part of a Rube Goldberg device.
Betty Cavanaugh and Christie Melanson build their portion of a Rube Goldberg machine.

Brian Engstrom wants to build a better mousetrap, but he's not out to get more rodents. Rather, the young teacher at Don Lugo High School in Chino hopes to capture his students' interest in engineering by showing them the discipline's real-world applications.

The hands-on assignment is one of several that junior high and high school teachers are learning about this summer in Project Lead the Way, an intensive two-week program at Cal Poly Pomona offered in June and again in July designed to promote engineering education.

This summer marks the first time the university has hosted the national program, joining San Diego State as the only institutions in California to provide such training. Cal Poly Pomona has taken the lead in the region in promoting the STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) curriculum for middle, high school and community college students, with Project Lead the Way being a concrete example. Four courses are being offered — Introduction to Engineering Design, Computer Integrated Manufacturing, Principles of Engineering and Gateway to Technology — and each condenses a year's worth of instruction into two weeks. The curriculum, which teachers adopt for their own students, was introduced in 12 New York high schools during the 1997-98 academic year. Today, the programs are offered in more than 3,000 schools in 50 states.

The inaugural program at Cal Poly Pomona attracted 60 schools from local school districts, California and beyond. Key support has come from major corporations, including Boeing and Sempra Energy, who see the benefits Project Lead the Way has to offer.

Engstrom, a math teacher entering his second year at Don Lugo, says Project Lead the Way is showing him how to show students that math and science are a part of everyday life. The mousetrap exercise, for example, involves taking the device apart and then reconstructing it on a computer using 3-D animation software.

Doug Hutchings, who teaches at Upland High School, worked in engineering for 15 years before entering the classroom. His goal in Project Lead the Way is to learn how to best share his expertise with students – how to apply the pedagogical skills required of a good instructor. He also has a soft spot for students who might otherwise get overlooked when it comes time to apply for college.

“There's a whole group of kids who struggle in English but shine in math,” he says. “I'd love to help make their transcripts sing” by giving them a solid grounding in engineering.

The classrooms in the College of Engineering where the program is being taught look like a cross between a computer lab and a high-end yard sale. Up front, master teachers show their aspiring colleagues the software applications and digital tricks of the trade involved in Project Lead the Way's curriculum. In back, numerous plastic bins containing the ingredients for the hands-on exercises line the wall and rest on desks. Some are as simple as mousetraps. Others involve robotic arms. The teachers will take those ingredients back to their schools, along with a deeper understanding of how best to ignite their students' interest in engineering.

“These instructors and their schools have made a thoughtful, serious commitment that will reap benefits down the road,” says Ed Hohmann, dean of the College of Engineering, who notes that the nation will soon face an engineering crisis when Baby Boomers, the backbone of the profession, start retiring in large numbers.

Without younger engineers to fill the void, the economy could suffer. Students who develop an early interest in engineering are not only better prepared to succeed at college, but they are also better prepared to launch their careers. And by introducing younger people to engineering in a hands-on fashion, more females are likely to enter the traditionally male-dominated profession.

“It's a win-win for everyone,” Hohmann says.