It's no secret that the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics represent a host of American jobs that go unfilled for a lack of trained, qualified workers.
If that is ever to change, then education will need to lead the way, and a pre-engineering curriculum called Project Lead The Way appears poised to do so.
PLTW, first introduced 10 years ago in a dozen high schools in New York state, has arrived in the Sheboygan Area School District this year in the form of a pilot program at Farnsworth Middle School. All of the school's sixth-graders will cycle through it this year, and the district wants it in all three of its middle schools and both high schools in 2009-10.
Although the finish line may be years away, the bottom line is simple: Grow engineers.
"There will be nothing but jobs for these kids," said Mark Ellis, who teaches PLTW as a technology instructor at Farnsworth. "Good-paying jobs, in all phases of engineering."
Already, PLTW has made Farnsworth's computer lab the envy of the district as students perform three-dimensional modeling on 26 dual-platform Macintosh computers, acquired at no cost to the district via four community partnerships.
The Frank and Frieda Brotz Foundation, Wigwam Mills, Donohue and Associates and Gardner-Thomas Industries stepped up to equip the lab. Naming rights to the lab at North High School already have been sold for $75,000, and a similar contribution is being sought for South High.
In-kind donations have been made to PLTW by Curt G. Joa Inc., Rockline Industries, Morgan Aircraft and the John Michael Kohler Arts Center.
"This really seems to be hitting home," Tim Baneck, the district's coordinator of career and technical education, said of PLTW. "There is high demand in our community for engineers and for positions with those skills.
"Jobs that used to be manual in the past are now moving to an engineering skill set. Many employers understand that, and we think this curriculum is a way to bridge the gap and meet the needs of our community."
The district's role is to supply teachers trained in PLTW, for which Ellis attended a two-week "boot camp" in August at the Milwaukee School of Engineering. Next summer, at least four more teachers will receive the training, which is geared toward the use of Autodesk Inventor software.
The fit seems to be a good one for Ellis, 47, who has been in the district since 1985 and at Farnsworth for almost half that time. He has a master's degree in instructional technology, and he likes the way PLTW's hands-on, team-oriented approach turns students loose to create and gives them a taste of what real engineers do.
"The kids seem to be loving it," Ellis said. "They're rising to the challenge. It's making them stretch. The key is the application of math and science concepts.
"The point isn't to make all students into engineers, but to expose them to the concepts involved."
As students remain in the program, the payoffs start to add up. At the high school level, some PLTW courses will count as science credits toward graduation, and the Department of Public Instruction is advocating for equivalency credits to be accepted by colleges and universities throughout the state.
PLTW is now in 3,000 schools in all 50 states. Baneck calls it a "building block" program for the Sheboygan district, an investment in the future, and grant money for equipment and software will be needed for it to continue.
"Our five-year plan is based on the success of this first year," he said. "One measure of that will be the interest of the kids."
Doug Carroll - Sheboygan