Enter “engineer” and “shortage” into any web browser, and you’ll receive more hits than the Georgia Tech football team takes in a season. American universities simply can’t graduate enough qualified engineers.
It’s not that there are too few interested students, it’s that too many students can’t survive the rigorous program. Nationwide, more than 40 percent of students who declare engineering as a major will not complete the degree, according to Eric Iversen of the American Society for Engineering Education. Thus, while college enrollment surges, and the number of students declaring engineering as a major grows steadily, the number of people who complete degrees doesn’t change—65,113 graduates in 2001, up less than 1 percent from 62,372 in 1999.
Richard Liebich saw both the problem and the potential to create something with lasting impact. As an engineer himself, having graduated from Michigan State University, he understood firsthand the rigors of the university engineering curriculum. And as the son of the late Herbert Liebich and a trustee of the foundation he founded (Charitable Leadership Foundation), Liebich also was in a position to make a real difference in the preparedness of K-12 students for university engineering coursework. From his home in Clifton Park, New York, Richard Liebich began searching in the early 1990s for a K-12 pre-engineering program he could replicate and take nationally.
He didn’t have to look far. In the mid-1990s, Liebich was sitting on the advisory board of a program created by Richard Blais—then chairman of the technology department of a school district in New York—to give high school students pre-engineering training. Using the resources of Charitable Leadership Foundation, Liebich seized on the nascent program in 1997 and created Project Lead the Way from Blais’s program.
The PLTW curriculum now in use is “hardly recognizable” from that early program, Liebich says. No offense to Blais, who today serves as Project Lead the Way’s executive director. The curriculum is revised every two years, Liebich explains, “in order to keep the material current and to improve what is delivered.”
The coursework covers four years and develops the math and science skills that students will need to succeed in college. The classes also teach students the basics of engineering design—the application of engineering basics to real-world problems. Iversen says universities lose many good students because the curriculum is front-loaded with math and science, which causes students to become frustrated and dropout before they see the practical applications of what they’re learning—the “fun stuff” in engineering.
Recently, PLTW has added a middle school program called Gateway to Technology whose four 10-week units are activity-oriented and introduce students to technology-related fields and processes. Liebich tells Philanthropy that the first curriculum for elementary students will be coming online within the year.
What caught everyone off-guard, including Liebich, was Project Lead the Way’s growth. In 1997, Liebich says, “We hoped to be in 50 schools at the end of five years. Today we’re in nearly 500.” Come September, PLTW will add two states to the list of 31 it’s currently in.
Project Lead the Way has succeeded because Liebich took an innovative approach to selling it. “The majority of students are in public schools,” he observes, “so we decided to focus the program there.” But to get in the door, he knew he couldn’t pitch PLTW as a reform program. “The whole public school system is run by fear, ” Liebich says, “so we had to get schools to see the program as something that will help teachers and leaders succeed in their jobs and do better.”
Of course, bringing the program to public schools meant more than overcoming the intangible fears of school personnel. It also meant overcoming the very real problem of teacher quality. To address this, PLTW requires that its teachers go through a rigorous training regimen before ever entering the classroom.
First, they must first undergo an online assessment of their skills and technical knowledge in order to determine their strengths and weaknesses. The assessment then segues into the second phase of training, which is the two-week Summer Training Institute that brings teachers up to speed in areas where they’re weak, and advances their knowledge in the areas where they’re stronger. Upon completion, the teachers are ready for the classroom. In addition, ongoing training is provided instructors during the school year to support classroom efforts.
The extra effort is paying off, as the program’s exponential growth indicates. But other signs of effectiveness are emerging. Universities, for example, have begun to recognize the quality of PLTW students by joining forces with the program. Currently, 14 American schools of engineering have signed on. Among these is San Diego State University, whose engineering program has agreed to admit any PLTW student who has completed at least three courses with success and meets the university’s other admission requirements. Another partner is Clarkson University in New York, which last year began granting scholarships to PLTW students in its engineering school.
Niel Tebbano, the project’s director of operations, finds the universities’ interest easy to understand. Studies indicate that only 10 percent of PLTW graduates drop out of university engineering programs—far better than the nationwide average of 40 percent. Further, PLTW graduates are better all-around students. In recent comparison studies, PLTW students outdistanced their colleagues in statewide high-stakes exams in chemistry, physics, mathematics, and English. Thus even those who don’t complete the engineering program are good bets to succeed in other parts of the university.
Another sign of the program’s success is the number of minority students it is bringing into engineering. While the percentage of women entering engineering programs has traditionally been low, the percentage of Hispanic and African-American students is even lower. In 2000, only 5.6 percent of engineering degrees awarded went to African-Americans, and 5.8 percent went to Hispanics.
“Minorities are the fastest growing populations in the United States,” Tebbano said, but “just 3 percent to 4 percent will achieve twelfth-grade competency in science and math.” Recruiting minority kids, he says, is the greatest challenge.
By gaining their attention in middle school and high school, PLTW can give minorities the training needed to survive at the university level. PLTW’s goal is for each state to enroll and ultimately graduate a percentage of minority students that equals the percentage of its minority population. Hard numbers are not yet available, but Tebbano believes PLTW is on course to reach its goal. Eric Iversen agrees that the program has proven very successful at “recruiting minorities for engineering programs.”
Liebich wanted to establish a pre-engineering program that would not only succeed, but sustain itself as well. Over the years, Liebich has watched many good initiatives wither and die when their funding dried up. To prevent this from happening, he set up PLTW to make enough money to keep it operating.
As a part of the PLTW curriculum, schools agree to lease the program’s software for the courses. By providing the licensing agreements to this software, the program generates revenue. PLTW also provides schools purchasing power through an optional national bid. PLTW leverages its size to get schools better prices on computers and other equipment than they could get independently.
The bottom line: by 2004 the program side of PLTW will be entirely self-supporting. The teacher education side will follow soon after. To help ensure the program remains self-sustaining, Liebich has appointed a board of directors that is made up primarily of businessmen. A retired vice president of Kodak and another from Lockheed-Martin currently sit on the board. Liebich is the one board member from the foundation world.
Some have criticized the program as too expensive. It would cost a school with no start-up equipment in place some $88,000 to establish a four-year program for 20 kids. But Tebbano replies that most schools already have a lot of the equipment that’s required when they decide to join the program (desks, chairs, space). The only real cost to most schools is the software and hardware.
Tebbano adds that schools can usually obtain considerable help for the computer materials. In New Hampshire, for instance, the state legislature will provide matching funds for any school that wants to involve itself in PLTW. Help is also often available locally. At Woodbridge High School in Woodbridge, Virginia, for example, funds for the computers came from the Prince William County School District and from federal entitlement monies made possible by the Carl Perkins Act, according to Gene Dew, the PLTW teacher at Woodbridge High.
Building a Better Mousetrap?
There’s no shortage of programs available to school districts that purport to solve all sorts of student-achievement ills. But Liebich stresses several exceptional features of Project Lead the Way. “Teacher education is critical,” he says, and it’s what drives this program forward.
It’s also driven forward by high expectations, high demands on teachers and students, and constant assessment and updating. Longitudinal studies of student progress over the years are now underway, and soon the PLTW leadership will have an even better idea of the impact they’re having on engineering education.
Liebich hopes other grantmakers will follow his lead and create self-sustaining groups like PLTW. “I wish more would look at this model,” he says, because it holds so much promise.