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Project Lead the Way Reaches Students Through Teachers

It's early Monday afternoon, and a group of 18 students gathered on the second floor of Old Dominion University's Kaufman Hall are about to witness the fruits of their morning's labor. They gather around a makeshift, two-lane wooden track, eager to see the results of a race between two roughly six-inch wooden model cars.

A modified air compressor fires off with a loud puff, and the two miniature vehicles rocket down the track. Students laugh as one of the cars veers out of it lane, skidding onto the floor - the third such time it has failed to reach the finish line.

It's a scene that wouldn't be out of place in a middle school science class, and that's exactly the idea. The "students" are actually teachers from around the country, learning new methods to engage their own students in engineering and science through the Project Lead the Way (PLTW) program.

PLTW is a nonprofit organization that promotes pre-engineering courses for middle and high school students. Funded by private grants and donations, the organization works with state governments to form partnerships with public schools, universities and the private sector to encourage more high school and middle school students to pursue education in engineering and science.

At the middle school level, the program focuses on teaching kids basic skills for learning engineering principles, such as using engineering software like Autodesk and researching solutions to problems on the Internet. The program also tries to foster interest in engineering among younger students, so that once they reach high school and college they will not only have a base of knowledge to work with, but also a desire to pursue engineering or science as a career.

"We try to give them a better understanding of what engineering is, and what classes they'll need to take once they get to high school," said Rusty West, one of two master instructors conducting the two-week course.

In order to accomplish this goal, PLTW goes through the people most able to make an impact on as great a number of students as possible: teachers. Coordinated through a selected state university (ODU serves as Virginia's), PLTW works with officials in the State Department of Education to convince schools to add the program to their curriculum. Teachers from the school receive training from PLTW's master instructors, and gain access to the program's online course guide.

"We're teaching the teachers," said West. "They come in here and learn everything in a highly intensive, two-week time frame, which they can then take back to their schools."

PLTW is currently being used by school systems in all 50 states, with this particular group composed of teachers from Georgia, Washington, South Carolina and Virginia, among other locales.

Sean Mascarw, a former student teacher from South Carolina who will begin his first year as a full-time teacher this fall, said that the class was fairly streamlined, and that it seemed to shift the curriculum emphasis toward a higher-tech education.

"It seems like they're trying to train engineers, rather than train contractors," he said.

Constructed around a set of modules, the Gateway to Technology course PLTW offers to teachers is designed to replace industrial technology classes, or "shop" classes, in a standard curriculum. The modules Design and Modeling, Magic of Electrons, Science of Technology, Automation and Robots and Flight and Space are all interrelated, each drawing upon lessons the students learn in other modules.

PLTW is currently working on getting more schools to adopt the program, with the ultimate goal being to stave off a widely predicted worldwide engineer shortage.

"(PLTW) began 12 years ago, and it has since spread across the country," said William Ollar, a master instructor. "We're not just teaching engineers, we're developing a work pool."

This article was posted on: July 29, 2008

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