Project Lead the Way helps students get their foot in the door with engineering
–by Tom Garland, Kirkwood News Service
Justin Derby had a big smile on his face. He stood proudly in front of a tri-fold poster outside Jefferson High School’s theatre. He wasn’t smiling because he was proud of the intricate engineering project he and his partner had just completed. He wasn’t smiling because of the support of his fellow classmates, his teachers, and his parents, or even because of all the free cookies and punch around.
Justin Derby was smiling because he just received his high school diploma and he’s already started building his collegiate portfolio. “I have 16 credit hours at Iowa State already and I haven’t set foot on the campus,” Derby said. One other reason to smile might be that those college credits didn’t cost Derby or his parents a dime.
Derby isn’t a whiz-kid, a closet millionaire, a scam artist, or a phenomenal athlete. If they were holding casting calls for a film called, “That Kid That Lives Down The Block From Us” he would probably land the leading role. So how did he manage to get a heavy semester’s worth of college credit for free while he was still in high school?
What Derby did was put time and effort, during all four years of high school, into a program called Project Lead the Way. Now Derby, like the 30,000 other high school students taking college credit courses across the state, is reaping the benefits.
Ten years ago, a program called Project Lead the Way was launched in upstate New York. The idea was to address the shortage of engineers in the United States, but along the way it became clear that the program’s rigorous and relevant curriculum could be an effective catalyst for education improvement at any school. Today, the program is offered in some 3,000 schools in all 50 states and the District of Columbia.
With Project Lead the Way, a student actually obtains Kirkwood Community College engineering credit. Hence, it fills the requirement for engineering classes, like the ones Justin Derby will take to complete his software engineering major at Iowa State. The courses offer hands-on technical preparation to provide relevant skills for today’s engineering workforce. Kirkwood’s Executive Director of Secondary Programs Dave Bunting believes the program is doing just that.
“We appreciate the school districts making these 21st Century class offerings available. It’s a great deal for the students and parents to get these choices at no added cost to the students,” Bunting said.
Jason Taylor, the Project Lead the Way coordinator at Kirkwood, claims he sees the financial benefits helping students and their families everyday. “I had a student come in the other day who had 15 credit hours. He was able to take a lighter load his first semester and eliminate summer classes. This is about $4,000 worth of credit that he won’t have to pay for. His mom was unbelievably happy,” Taylor said.
Derby added that not only did the program help him financially, but also helped him decide on his career path as well, “It saves a lot of money and it just lets you know if engineering is the right course for you. For me it was, and I stuck with it.”
Denny Rubenow, facilitator for career and technical education for the Cedar Rapids School District, explained where the funding for such a vast program comes from.
“I administer a federal grant called The Carl Perkins Career and Tech Education Grant,” Rubenow said, “For the Cedar Rapids district alone, the grant averages around $200,000 a year that goes to high schools.”
Rubenow went on to explain why Project Lead the Way has been one of the programs the district has spent a significant amount of the Carl Perkins funds on.
“It gives them a step up compared to other students in terms of being ahead in college, saving money, and moving toward a career objective,” Rubenow said.
Lisa Digman, a teacher and Project Lead the Way instructor at Jefferson High School, couldn’t agree more. She believes it’s “one of the best opportunities available to students”.
“[Students] can get three college credit hours for each one of the classes they take,” Digman said, “I have some kids that are leaving here with 18 credits, which is pretty phenomenal.”
Phenomenal as it may be, taking a look at the final engineering projects of Digman’s students, one would think they were produced by Rockwell Collins, not high school students.
Jackson Cover and Clint Downey both just graduated from Jefferson High School and are headed to the University of Iowa for engineering. Both of them have equally as much credit traveling to Iowa City with them as Derby and the other students Digman taught, but they each have a pending patent and $500 in scholarship money to go with it.
Cover and Downey, both members of Jefferson’s band, developed a prototype for more effective instrument lyres (a music holder used by marching bands) while working in the Project Lead the Way program. The University of Iowa recognized them with the top engineering honor in the state and a $500 UI scholarship for their work.
After watching Cover and Downey’s presentation, one would think these two had been working in the industry for years. “We got our patent because when we were going into production, we didn’t want to send our design out to people that could possibly pawn it off as their own,” Cover said.
Cover and Downey plan to market their new product to local area music business, high school and college marching bands, and possibly world wide.
“Music is universal. Any marching band in the world could use our lyres and benefit from them,” Downey explained.
Experience in the fields of science, engineering, technology, and mathematics is vital to students as they make the transition to college and then on to the workforce. According to U.S. government data, job openings requiring expertise in these fields will increase by 18.3 percent through 2014.
With the current state of the economy, the future may be uncertain for students like Justin Derby, Jackson Cover, and Clint Downey. It is clear though, that with Project Lead the Way, their futures started a whole lot sooner.