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Summer Training Prepares Teachers To Inspire Future Engineers

Video by Katie Euphrat

Even in a tight job market San Diego companies can struggle to fill jobs in fields like science, technology, engineering and math. KPBS education reporter Kyla Calvert tells us about a summer training program at San Diego State that prepares teachers to fill the growing need in San Diego and across the country for highly trained workers. (Video by Katie Euphrat)

— Even in a tight job market San Diego companies can struggle to fill jobs in fields like science, technology, engineering and math.

With an eye toward filling job openings like those here and across the country, about 20 high school teachers from states ranging from Alaska to Florida were in a San Diego State University classroom last week learning to write computer programs that tell gears when to turn and lights when to shine.

They were part of this summer’s class of trainees for Project Lead The Way. The national nonprofit develops engineering, technology and biomedical curriculum for middle and high schools.

Jen Kluczynski was spending her second summer in San Diego training teachers to deliver the engineering curriculum.

‘We’re getting the teachers prepared to go into their classrooms and use the equipment and use the programs and be prepared to answer questions that their students might have so that they can go in and feel confident in what they’re actually teaching,” she said.

What sets the courses they were learning to teach apart is that they are project-based. That means instead of lecturing to a class, teachers will help students use the formulas and skills they learn to build things like circuits, robots and hydrogen batteries.

Rancho Bernardo teacher Lisa Barnett was new to the Project Lead the Way curriculum, but she has been leading her schools robotics team, so she knew what effect hands-on lessons that end in working machines mean for her classroom.

“In my classroom that means that I get more one-on-one time with each kid and get to celebrate with them when they experience something that works,” she said.

She has also seen that applying math and science to solving real-world problems accomplishes another goal that’s important to her.

“I’ve always been really strongly motivated to get more women into science. And this is one way I know we can attract more girls to take science classes,” she said.

SDSU Engineering Professor Bruce Westermo directs the engineering curriculum training and agrees with Barnett that Project Lead the Way’s courses target students who might not otherwise consider going into tech fields.

“This is not an honors program for just the brightest kids. What we tend to say is that this is for your top 80 percent kids in your class," he said. "And the important part is – the top 20 percent, they’d probably go into engineering or technology anyways. What this program does is help grab that middle 60 percent of kids that never saw the relevance of algebra or calculus. But when you see it applied to something and why you need to learn it – it suddenly opens them up.”

Opening more students up to fields like engineering matters to California companies like Qualcomm and Chevron, which sponsor Project Lead the Way in California according to Westermo.

“We need to grow our own workforce," he said. "And it’s part of the reason I think it has been popular in California because it’s really hard to hire someone from Iowa or Nebraska to move out here, to try and buy a house and to meet this standard of living. But if we can attract the kids that grew up in San Diego and train them to fill those jobs, they’re going to want to stay in San Diego.”

Project Lead the Way’s courses are offered at 375 middle and high schools in California, 56 of those are in San Diego County. Schools get the curriculum for free but have to pay for teacher training and materials. Students from those classes become eligible for scholarships at SDSU’s School of Engineering. There are about 30 scholarship recipients at the school now. Westermo believes the performance of Project Lead the Way students in other states bodes well for their success.

“The students that have gone to say, the Rochester Institute of Technology out of the New York program. They have about a 90 percent continuation ratio for the students in engineering," he said. "Ninety percent of the kids that start will finish. At a typical university in engineering, it’s 50 percent.”

That track record is one of the reasons Poway teacher Rodger Dohm asked his school to send him to the summer institute.

“There are so many kids that say quote ‘I’m going to be an engineer, because my dad or my mom was or my friend was,’ and then they get in and they drop out. We don’t want that to happen – we want the kids to be successful,” he said.

The teachers trained at SDSU this summer will go back to their classes prepared to show students what goes into to producing that satisfying sound of success.

Video by Katie Euphrat

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