Kendreah Weber, left, and Austin Frank design and build a working model of an elevator. The project requires them to add circuitry to the model and write a computer program instructing the elevator when and how to operate.
Mark Kotula’s fist pumps the air as he
announces his accomplishment to his fellow sixth-graders.
Gently rotating on the computer screen in
front of him is the 3D image of a wooden mallet, the kind toddlers use in
pound-the-peg games. To Kotula, the mallet is one more mission accomplished in
technology class. To teacher Bill Rae, it’s one more seed planted in the effort
to interest middle-schoolers in science, engineering, math and technology.
Sydney Scott, Becky Copeland and Jordan Paull take on the roles of mechanical engineer, electrical engineer and computer program engineer to design and build a working model of a traffic signal.
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A teacher at Lake Fenton Middle School near
Flint, Rae also is a master teacher in Project Lead the Way, a nonprofit
educational program working to increase the number and diversity of students in
engineering and related fields. With corporate partners, Project Lead the Way
has developed a curriculum package for middle and high school classrooms with
courses ranging from robotics to civil engineering to architecture.
The program uses a hands-on, problem-solving
approach that Rae said appeals to students across the board. About 80 Michigan
schools will have all or part of the Lead the Way curriculum in place by this
fall, and Rae spends part of each summer teaching fellow educators how to
implement the program in their classrooms.
"This was designed because kids weren’t taking
classes to become engineers," he said.
That’s become a familiar cry among "STEM" —
science, technology, engineering and math — advocates. Some say that the field
suffers nationally from lack of rigor in K-12 programs, shortages of qualified
teachers and declining enrollment in college programs. At worst, they say,
America’s preeminence in engineering and technology are threatened.
Others disagree, saying that while K-12
programs need improvement, America remains the dominant force in science and
technology worldwide. One question is how much of that dominance rests on
"We import a lot of our scientists and
engineers from Third World countries," said Dr. Paul Kuwik, state director of
Michigan’s Project Lead the Way affiliate, headquartered at Eastern Michigan
University. "They realized the only way to turn this around was to make it an
issue in K-12 public education. … There is a significant need for some kind of
program to provide encouragement and preparation for STEM."
Project Lead the Way’s approach is to offer
what it says is a rigorous, relevant curriculum to schools willing to make a
commitment of time and funding. Participating schools must agree to provide
specific computer software and hardware as well as supplies for hands-on
projects. They also must send classroom teachers to a training institute, spend
adequate time teaching the material, enforce math prerequisites, and track
participating students’ postsecondary enrollment choices.
"The summer training institutes (for teachers)
are very intensive," Kuwik said. "They’re what we call boot camps."
More than 75 teachers are expected to attend
this summer’s institutes at EMU, studying under master teachers like Rae as well
as professors from the university’s own engineering technology program.
Start-up costs vary, depending on how much and
what type of computer equipment schools already have on hand, Kuwik said. A
"bare room" start-up might run $60,000 to $70,000, he estimated, but the average
cost is closer to $12,000 to $15,000. The summer institute costs $3,000 per
teacher, with some scholarships available.
In Lake Fenton, Rae’s sixth-, seventh- and
eighth-graders complete nine-week units in Design and Modeling, Automation and
Robotics, and Science of Technology, respectively. The high school program
includes Introduction to Design, and Digital Electronics.
"It’s fun when we get it. Once we get it,
we’re all happy," said seventh-grader Angela Young as she and two fellow
students worked to build a magnet-activated traffic signal.
Each member of the trio has a job: the
mechanical engineer builds a working model of the signal; the electrical
engineer wires the model to a computer and the computer engineer writes a
program telling the signal when to turn from red to green.
"I like this class. It’s hard, but it’s fun,"
says Austin Frank, a sentiment echoed by a number of other students.
‘WHY DO I HAVE
TO KNOW THIS?’
Rae, a former drafting teacher, said that by
challenging students to solve everyday problems, Project Lead the Way courses
answer the question, "Why do I have to know this?"
For example, to use Autodesk Inventor software
to design a round peg with a 1-inch diameter, the students must know what
"diameter" is. To use a formula that automatically calculates diameter, given
the radius, a student must know both terms and how they relate.
In Rae’s classroom, Project Lead the Way is a
hit. Nationally, it’s too early to say precisely what impact the program is
Still in the middle of a five-year independent
assessment, findings to date show that the project appears to attract
proportionately more minority students than college engineering programs do, but
no more females. A study of college transcripts of former PLTW students showed
that 40 percent of them chose engineering as a major, but without a control
group of non-PLTW students for comparison, it is hard to determine if PLTW was
the reason for those choices.
There are hundreds of programs at the state
and national level — public, private and hybrid — that promote STEM education.
Texas Instruments and Southern Methodist University in Texas collaborated on an
engineering curriculum called The Infinity Project, now in use in 300 schools
nationwide. The Ford Partnership for Advanced Studies, or Ford PAS, is a high
school curriculum developed by The Ford Motor Company Fund and Education
Development Center Inc. That program is in use at 300 sites in 26 states.
Public programs, too, play a role in STEM
efforts. There are 33 regional science and math centers in Michigan, established
by the state legislature to support K-12 science and math programs in local
There also were more than 100 federally funded
STEM education programs spread among 12 federal departments as of 2006,
according to a report by the American Competitiveness Council. Created by
Congress in 2005 to study STEM efforts, the council found that funding for those
efforts totaled $3.47 billion in 2007, but that there was a "general dearth of
evidence" about which programs were effective, since only 10 had undergone
scientifically rigorous impact evaluations.
American students who enroll in STEM fields in
college tend to drop out more than students in other disciplines, Kuwik said.
"I think it’s the rigor (of college) and the
lack of preparation at the K-12 level," he said.
Scores on the National Assessment of
Educational Progress, the national testing program conducted by the U.S.
Department of Education, showed that 40 percent of fourth-graders nationwide and
31 percent of eighth-graders were proficient in math in 2007. Michigan’s
numbers were 37 percent and 29 percent, respectively. In science, 27 percent of
both fourth- and eighth-graders earned proficient scores nationally in 2005, the
most recent year that test was given. Michigan’s numbers were 30 percent and 35
The STEM Coalition, an advocacy organization
representing both education and industry groups, has asked Congress to give
science equal status with reading and math under the No Child Left Behind Act,
meaning schools would face sanctions if students didn’t meet science proficiency
Project Lead the Way offers students a chance
to demonstrate proficiency in the form of a two-day examination given at the
conclusion of each high school course. Five Michigan universities with
engineering programs are considering granting college credit to students who
pass those tests, Kuwik said.
"Our goal is to have most universities in the
state accept articulated credit," he said.
Of course, sometimes knowledge is its own
reward, pointed out middle-schooler Shelby Beckman. When a seventh-grader can
successfully design a sensor-driven traffic signal, "It makes you feel really
Are there too few scientists and engineers in
the United States? Maybe. Or, maybe not.
Some say the current supply is sufficient, but
that there are not enough students in the pipeline to meet future demand. Others
say that the United States relies too heavily on importing engineers from
abroad. Still others report spotty problems in specific industries, but not a
general shortage. And yet others say the workforce is large enough, but does not
include enough women or minorities.
The National Science Foundation’s "Science and
Engineering Indicators 2008" stated that:
Overall growth in the science and engineering labor force in the
United States has been steady for 50 years, though growth in individual
occupations has varied.
The number of bachelor’s and master’s degrees granted in science
and engineering declined in the late 1990s, but has increased steadily since.
Women earned approximately 50 percent of all bachelor’s degrees
granted in psychology, agricultural sciences, chemistry and biological sciences
in 2005. Men earned about 80 percent of all bachelor’s degrees in physics,
engineering and computer science.
Twenty-five percent of college-educated scientists and engineers
in the labor force as of 2003 were foreign born.
Forty percent of scientists and engineers who hold doctoral
degrees are age 50 or older.
Read the full report
Lorie Shane is the managing editor of the Michigan Education Report, the Mackinac Center’s education policy journal. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided that Michigan Education Report is properly cited.