Engineering is one of the fastest growing job markets in the United States. With more students in engineering programs, it’s becoming harder for newly graduated engineers to stand out from the crowd.
Project Lead the Way (PLTW) is a national program focused on giving students real-world experience in the biomedical, computer science and engineering fields. “This program is about the engineering design process,” says Dennis Ware, who teaches PLTW engineering at East Ridge High School in Woodbury.
Those engineering courses offer hands-on experience with East Ridge’s two dedicated machining labs and cutting-edge manufacturing equipment. It’s the only high school in Minnesota with two 3D printers, Ware says.
Ware even teaches additional programming and building skills that aren’t required in the PLTW curriculum. “I push the envelope because I know what these kids are going to face,” Ware says.
In the past three years, Ware has organized his PLTW engineering courses into a four-year program, letting students branch out into specific engineering fields after the introductory courses.
This past April, Ware’s computer integrated manufacturing class was working on precisely manufacturing amplifiers for their cell phone speakers. Students in the computer lab were writing programming for the mechanical arms used in factories.
At the end of the program, students pair up to work on a yearlong capstone project in the engineering design and development course.
Since 2016, Ware has connected each pair of students and their projects to a working engineer at nearby 3M. Capstone project students get constant feedback on their designs and go onsite to collaborate in person. At the end of the year, they present at 3M to engineers and East Ridge faculty.
We talked with two East Ridge seniors (now recent grads) about their project this past year. “A big problem for us is algae blooms,” says Kennedy Uzpen.
Her partner Maxine Smith adds, “So we decided to make a harmful-algae cleaner.”
“It’s all troubleshooting,” Maxine says. “If you get something wrong, you can go through the process of fixing it.”
Presentations and field trips helped open doors for Kennedy and Maxine’s careers. Kennedy says she’s a hands-on learner and plans on pursuing mechanical engineering.
“I’ve been offered internships from big businesses because I have CAD knowledge,” Maxine says.
Leonid Heide is an alum of Ware’s engineering courses and is already deep into his engineering career. He is a junior at the University of Minnesota, and a research assistant at their uninhabited aerial vehicle lab. The hands-on experience was the most important part of Heide’s time in PLTW, he says. “Even a lot of my peers at the university don’t have the skills that many seniors have in Mr. Ware’s program.”
Mark Landgrebe is also an East Ridge grad; he graduated from the University of Chicago with a degree in computer science in 2016. “I live in the San Francisco Bay area. I worked for Cisco Systems as a software engineer…Now, I am a software engineer at a cloud security startup,” Landgrebe says. “My AP science and math courses in high school gave me a solid foundation” for college, he adds. “I was able to place out of lower-level STEM courses … so I could focus on advanced courses for my degree.” What’s his advice for high schoolers interested in STEM fields? “AP math, stats and science courses are most important for pursuing STEM and engineering-related degrees in college.”
Back at East Ridge, teacher Dennis Ware is enormously proud of his students. The passing rate of the end-of-year evaluations in East Ridge’s PLTW program is 93 percent, well over the national average of 72 percent. By getting them to apply his lessons in real, hands-on projects, he knows his students will use the skills he taught them throughout their careers. “Application is the secret sauce of learning,” Ware says.