Do you remember when high schools taught woodshop? Your kids won't.

Technology education based on current, industry-driven curricula is rapidly replacing traditional industrial arts in public schools, and one big reason for the shift is a growing worldwide deficit of technology workers.

The U.S. Department of Labor predicts that the global economy will be short 15 million technical workers by 2020.

Confronting the Shortage

Project Lead The Way (PLTW), a nonprofit organization, offers high schools free, advanced technology and engineering education curricula to combat a forecasted shortage of workers in these industries. The program started in 12 New York state high schools in the 1997/1998 school year, and is currently used in more than 1,300 schools in 45 states and the District of Columbia.

Patrick Leaveck, regional Midwest director of PLTW, said industrial arts lost educational priority because they didn't directly impact the global economy or the domestic shortage of technology workers.

"Taking [traditional] industrial arts courses will not solve that problem, so we have to have courses that are both rigorous and relevant," Leaveck said, adding that PLTW courses count as college credits.

Gaining an Edge

East Senior High School, a small, 900-student school in Mankato, Minn., launched PLTW this academic year, and school officials appreciate the edge the program has given the Technology Education Department, said Mark Seiler, the department's chairman.

"We never really had the curriculum that Project Lead the Way has developed, which is phenomenal," Seiler said.

PLTW introduces students to the scope, rigor and discipline of engineering and engineering technology through a four-year sequence of high-school courses prior to entering college. The program offers focus in: engineering design; digital electronics; principles of engineering; computer integrated manufacturing; and civil engineering and architecture.

"There is a packaged curriculum that you agree to use if you adopt the Project Lead the Way model in your school," said Barb Embacher, career education coordinator for Mankato Area Public Schools. "You send your teachers away to a really intensive program training in the summer for two weeks. They work from 7 a.m. until midnight every day for two weeks to learn how to teach [a] course."

The program updates courses at least once every two years, having them evaluated by technology professors and CEOs who advise the organization on industry requirements from future job applicants.

"Our American kids are getting behind some of the industrialized upcoming nations like China and India," Embacher said.

PLTW aligns all its curricula with math and science standards set by the International Technology Education Association, and offers additional training for teachers throughout the school year.

"Teachers have access to our Internet site, where they can download lessons to review, taught by a master teacher in video format," Leaveck said, adding that PLTW requires career counselors to be trained in how to pitch technology opportunities to students, because they typically have little technology knowledge.

Seiler said the challenge is not just getting students to enter a college technology or engineering program, but directing them toward specializations tailored to their strengths.

He said technology and engineering schools have high attrition rates because students often discover they aren't prepared for the intense math involved. He said the PLTW courses channel students to engineering technology-related fields better suited for them.

"We need to channel that student to make sure they make the right decision, and say, 'OK, I don't need to be the engineer -- I want to be the design technician that does all the drawing," Seiler said.

East Senior High School plans to integrate its PLTW Computer Integrated Manufacturing as well as its engineering, designing and drafting courses with labs at Minnesota State University, Mankato and neighboring Rasmussen Community College.

Andy Opsahl  | 

Andy Opsahl is a former staff writer and features editor for Government Technology magazine.