‘Hands-on’ fuels engineering classes

BY CLARK CAHILL | APRIL 21, 2009 7:30 AM

Building robotic cars and creating model trains during the school day doesn’t sound like a normal activity for high-school students.

But at West High and City High, it has become the first step in preparing students for college and potential engineering careers.

“I’m going to go to college for it, and I enjoy building things,” said West High senior Thane Somers, who is enrolled in the Principles of Engineering course. “The class has been very enjoyable so far.”

The high schools implemented Project Lead the Way engineering curriculum in the 2007-08 school year — a national campaign emphasizing in-depth, hands-on knowledge of engineering and technology-based careers, according to the program’s website.

After two years of teaching the basic engineering courses offered by the curriculum, West High will provide two new, more advanced courses for the 2009-10 year — Civil Engineering and Architecture along with Biotechnical Engineering. Students from City High and Regina High will be able to travel to West to take the courses.

“We started with two basic courses … the next step is to look at more advanced classes,” said Dominic Audia, who teaches engineering classes at both schools.

Since the program’s first year, its popularity has grown among students, he said, including those not interested in engineering, because of its unique project-based curriculum.

“We try to get all sorts of kids involved in the program,” he said. “The projects take time, and it is more of an applied science, so they take pride in what they do.”

Audia noted almost half of those enrolled in the classes are female — a trend that doesn’t correlate with the professional engineering work field.

Associate Superintendent Jim Behle investigated the program, thought highly of it, and worked to place it in Iowa City’s schools. The decision became easier after Rockwell Collins — a Cedar Rapids-based engineering corporation — offered to help pay for equipment and provide grants to train teachers on the curriculum, Audia said.

Another factor that encouraged officials to start the curriculum was the more than 20 Iowa colleges that offered to give credit for the courses.

To provide college credit to students, programs need to be certified by a high school’s affiliate college. That process involves ensuring the school is teaching the correct curriculum and has the appropriate software, evaluating the quality of student work, and interviewing students, parents, and administrators.

Each of Iowa City’s courses were certified April 11, 2008, after being evaluated by UI engineering Professor David Rethwisch and program assistant Rebecca Whitaker, among others.

Rethwisch, the UI’s director for Project Lead the Way, said it’s important for schools that want to be certified to understand what it takes to provide a long-standing program. This includes informing counselors about everything the program provides and training teachers during the summer.

Rethwisch said teachers must go through two weeks of intensive training, which takes nearly eight hours each day, five days of the week, and includes numerous hours of homework in the evening.

“It is probably the most intensive work they’ve ever had, but it is also the most enjoyable,” he said. “They get a lot out of it and see how they can teach kids with hands-on projects.”

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