In 1986, a public-school teacher in upstate New York created a special high-school curriculum to encourage more of his students to study engineering. Within a few years he was not only attracting lots of kids to his hands-on classes in digital electronics and other subjects, but leaving them with valuable skills important in technology occupations. Within a few years he convinced the nearby Charitable Leadership Foundation to finance an expansion of the program. Thus was Project Lead the Way born with donated funds in 1997 across a network of 12 New York school districts. The next year it went national, as two New Hampshire schools joined. The first major corporate sponsor signed on in 1999, when Autodesk began to provide students with its world-leading computer-assisted-design software.
The program—which combines college-level technology concepts with exciting project-based learning (building a solar-powered car, creating fighting robots, using laser machine tools and print-jet manufacturing)—proceeded to grow explosively. By 2008, PLTW was being used in schools in all 50 states. The Kern Family Foundation gave the organization a $10 million gift in 2009 to allow further major expansion. (Engineering is a deep interest of the Kern family. They, for instance, gave $15 million to build a new home for the Marquette University College of Engineering.) The Kerns donated more than $26 million to Project Lead the Way over the next several years. In 2013, Chevron made a $6 million donation. The program’s many other donors include the Kauffman, Knight, and Conrad foundations, and companies like Lockheed Martin.
By 2015, more than 8,000 schools (now not only high schools but also middle and elementary campuses) were using PLTW curricula with 900,000 students. Project Lead the Way has become the nation’s most successful provider of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics instruction for K-12 students.
In addition to the imaginative curriculum and the project-based orientation, highly competent teachers are the key to the program’s success. Teachers who want to bring PLTW to their school must take an online skills assessment and then participate in weeks-long summer training to fill in their weak spots and hone their general technical understanding and teaching skills. The Rochester Institute of Technology has provided intensive teacher instruction for the program since 1998, and more that 10,000 teachers from across the U.S. have now been through the summer sessions.
At a time when the U.S. has a million unfilled technology jobs, engineering colleges, other educators, and employers have come to prize alumni from the PLTW courses—who score higher on math and tech tests, say they want to study engineering or computer science or other tech-related fields in seven cases out of ten, and drop out of university engineering programs at just one quarter the national rate of attrition. Clarkson University was one of the first high-quality tech schools to offer scholarships directly to PLTW students, and at some engineering schools today between 40 and 60 percent of the freshmen enrolled are project alums. Toyota and other employers are now also fast-tracking PLTW graduates into their technical training programs and skilled jobs.
- Article in Philanthropy magazine on the program’s origins, philanthropyroundtable.org/topic/excellence_in_philanthropy/building_tomorrows_engineers
- Timeline, pltw.org/about-us/history/pltw-milestones