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Schools step up to give students a taste of engineering

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Griffin Coolidge (left) and Josh Drummond, students at Parkland High School, work together in a Project Lead the Way classroom. 
PHOTO COURTESY OF PARKLAND SCHOOL DISTRICT Griffin Coolidge (left) and Josh Drummond, students at Parkland High School, work together in a Project Lead the Way classroom. 

Project Lead the Way is a local, workforce-development initiative that took on a life of its own.

It began as an effort by one high school teacher in upstate New York to better prepare his students for the unfilled jobs in his community more than two decades ago.

Today, it has grown into a national kindergarten-12th grade educational initiative centered on three subjects – engineering, biomedical science and computer science.

Founded in 1997, Project Lead the Way is headquartered in Indianapolis and its curriculum is offered in all 50 states and more than 10,500 schools, said Jennifer Erbacher, PLTW senior director of media and public relations.

PLTW employs a team of curriculum writers and partners with colleges and universities across the country to make sure that its courses are in tune with the latest industry trends and what employers are seeking.

In terms of what is happening in the classroom, PLTW students are engaged in a lot more collaborative work than perhaps is seen in a traditional high school classroom, Erbacher said.

“Our learning experience is very different,” she said. “Our classroom looks very different. Students are working together, and the teacher is there as a coach – instead of that traditional model of teacher as disseminator of information in front of the classroom.”


The Greater Lehigh Valley holds the distinction of being one of the first regions in the state to offer PLTW courses when Parkland High School began offering the curriculum in 2003, according to Jim Kester, chair of the technology and engineering department.

North Penn High School in Lansdale launched the program in the same year. There are 255 schools in Pennsylvania offering the PLTW curriculum.

Parkland began with the engineering track and has about 250 students enrolled in those courses.

The biomedical program is in its second year and has about 150 students.

The computer science track is new for the 2017-18 school year and has a student enrollment of about 150. 


East Penn School District became one of the newest districts in the area to begin offering the PLTW curriculum last school year when it launched the engineering program at Emmaus High School.

“East Penn did not have true pre-engineering courses available to students,” said Laura Witman, supervisor of secondary curriculum and instruction. “Students who are strong in math and science are often urged to consider engineering, but without this type of exposure often do not understand engineering and the various fields in engineering with any depth.”

The introductory courses were offered for the first time in the 2016-17 school year, and three second-level courses were added this school year, Witman said.

An additional second-level course, computer integrated manufacturing, will be added to the Emmaus High School curriculum for the 2018-19 school year.


Erbacher said some PLTW students go right into the workforce, some attend a trade school, others pursue a two-year degree and others enroll in a four-year college or university after high school.

“We believe that all education should prepare people for careers,” she said. “What is the purpose of a high school diploma if you are not ready for a career? With PLTW, early on they are engaging in career exploration, not only STEM areas, but technical transportable skills that they can take anywhere, the skills that make you a successful employee. That is what we believe education should do and how it differs from traditional tech-ed.

“We are not preparing them for one career path, we are ensuring that they have the knowledge and skills for any career path. It is really showing students how math and science and the subjects they learn in the traditional school day fit into real life, to help them engage in critical and creative thinking and make informed decisions about what they want to do.”


Parkland’s Kester said that not only is PLTW is preparing students for careers in the “real world,” but the program has other very real-world benefits.

“PLTW is such a hands-on program that students can’t help but realize whether or not engineering is a program of study they’d like to continue in college,” he said. “Let’s face it – going to college and changing a major can have a devastating financial effect on a student and their family.

“We get emails on a regular basis from students who tell us they already learned what they needed to through sophomore year in college, so it gives them a great head start. Most importantly, the students know for sure if this is what they want to study in college.”


PLTW is a nonprofit organization largely funded through fees that school districts such as East Penn and Parkland pay to access its curriculum and training.

For example, the engineering curriculum at the high school level costs $300 per year, which includes the curriculum, assessments, teacher training, required course software and ongoing support, Erbacher said. Participating schools can offer an unlimited number of courses and enroll as many students as they would like in the program.

Corporate and industry partners often give grants to schools to expand access, she added.

Many school districts also use the program at the junior high and middle school level, something that Parkland is exploring, Kester said.


Both Parkland and East Penn largely staffed their PLTW programs with tech education teachers. Those teachers who are selected to teach the PLTW classes have to attend special training programs.

Kester is one of two master teachers in Pennsylvania for the Level 1 engineering course, which means, among other things, that PLTW sends him to train other teachers on how to deliver the curriculum.

“Training is hard,” Kester said. “It involves sending teachers to trainings over the summer, some that last two weeks in length in other states. We lovingly refer to it as ‘boot camp’ because the teachers are learning how to deliver the entire school year curriculum and go through the labs during that time frame, so the days are pretty intense.”

Kester added that the curriculum provided by PLTW is updated regularly.

“Teachers are notified via email and asked to teach items that are updated in their curriculum, sometimes with only a few days’ notice, but it keeps the curriculum up-to-date. In the technology world where things are changing so fast, this is important and valued,” he said.

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