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Replacing Woodshop

A nonprofit organization brings free technology curricula to high schools nationwide.

by / March 30, 2006
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.

A Touch of Reality
East Senior High School started this school year with the PLTW's first-level course on the engineering design process -- teaching students how a concept goes from a designer's imagination to reality.

"[Students] just got done working on a group problem where they had to take a child's toy and modify it to enhance it or make it better -- reverse engineer it, take it all apart, draw all the parts, enhance it with the new parts, [and then] put it all together," Seiler said, adding that they had to present their ideas as practice for executive presentations, a component still too rare in classrooms.

He said students are excited about the program because it takes a hands-on approach to applying their math and science skills into real life.

"Our kids today are very visual -- they love the games, they love to play on their play stations and their Xboxes," Seiler said. "They need more than memorization and regurgitation. They want to do things, they want to be active."

Some schools assign math and science teachers to teach the PLTW curricula, which Seiler discourages.

"Math people are trained to teach mathematics in a classroom. They've never had to apply those concepts to a real-world situation," he said "Tech-ed teachers -- we've been trained to apply the math and the science into the world of work."

Seiler predicted that 400 to 450 students would participate in East Senior High School's technology education program every year -- roughly half the school. Sadly, Seiler said, few will be girls -- the carpentry and metal work activities typically associated with industrial arts classrooms deters most females from trying the classes.

Getting Girls
Attracting females to technology education classes is a struggle for PLTW officials, who seek 25 percent female enrollment in every school's tech-ed program.

It is also a primary goal for Seiler that he has applied unsuccessfully to his teacher-hunting efforts.

"We haven't been able to successfully recruit a female [tech-ed teacher] yet, but [whenever] we have an opportunity to, we try -- there's not a lot out there," Seiler said.

Leaveck said PLTW keeps its curricula gender-neutral, but encourages projects likely to interest females, such as design-related tasks for cosmetics and similar industries of interest.

"That's one of the things about math and science, especially among female students -- if they don't see how it benefits the world they live in, they're not that interested in it," Leaveck said.

The organization's marketing campaign, with brochures entitled "Smart Careers for Smart Girls," is directed toward school counselors, parents and female students.

"We're doing better in tracking females, and the numbers are coming up slowly each year as kids talk to other kids," Leaveck said.

Leaveck added that PLTW has a similar initiative to recruit minority students at 20 percent of their population level in every state, and most states are meeting that goal.

Paying for Progress
The PLTW's curricula is free. Implementation,however, is expensive.

"You need robotics equipment -- you need really up-to-date, fast computers with high-tech software packages on them, so [students] are using the same kind of software that the engineers are using out in the industry," Embacher said, adding that sending teachers away to be trained also racked up costs.

She said Mankato's program would cost roughly $100,000 over a five-year rollout. The Kern Foundation, a Wisconsin-based family organization, donated $66,000, and the remainder will be funded with additional community donations and school district funds, said Embacher.

The PLTW gives schools a list of required supplies and another of recommended vendors.

"We say, 'Cross off everything you have, [and] cross off everything you can substitute with what you have -- as long as it will make the curriculum go, we don't care,'" Leaveck said. "Borrow stuff from the community college -- share stuff with a neighboring district."

Early Recruiting
East Senior High School will soon implement the PLTW's middle-school outreach program called Gateway to Technology, which will put all middle-school students through an eight-week PLTW course, Embacher said.

"That's when we can get them excited, give them some fun activities to do, and show them the future of technology careers they can pursue and why it would be an advantage to take high-school classes in this area."

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Andy Opsahl

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

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