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Leading the Way

By Joan Killough-Miller

Concerned that high school students weren’t getting proper pre-engineering exposure, Richard Liebich ’66 leveraged his philanthropic means to turn a local program into a premier national effort to educate future engineers.

Ask Richard Liebich how to get kids to love science and engineering. “Get them talking about what they hate,” he says. “Start with an open-ended sentence, like ‘I hate it when...’ They’re bound to come up with something that really bothers them.”

For one teenager in snowy upstate New York, her pet gripe—an unreliable remote car starter—led her to invent a cell phone-activated starter that works beyond the range of traditional remotes, and even calls back to notify the owner that the car is running.

And that’s where the learning begins, says Liebich, who heads Project Lead the Way (PLTW), a national pre-engineering program offered in 1,700 high schools in 46 states and the District of Columbia. A successful businessman and philanthropist with an MBA from Michigan State University, Liebich serves as CEO and chairman of the board for PLTW. He divides his workweek between his business, Transport National Development, an industrial cutting tool manufacturer in Orchard Park, N.Y., and his charitable concerns. He also serves as CEO of three other companies: North American Carbide, Cerbide Inc., and Advanced Material Technology Inc.

PLTW is a not-for-profit organization with roots in the Charitable Leadership Foundation (CLF), an innovative organization founded by Liebich’s father. CLF promotes a performance-centered strategy of “high engagement philanthropy” to effect change in the areas of education, housing, and health care for people in need. As CEO of a related organization, the Charitable Venture Foundation, Liebich fosters responsible entrepreneurship to address social and educational issues.

Liebich’s involvement with PLTW began in the mid 90s with his own son, Adam, now 26. In middle school, Adam was enchanted with engineering, but his school’s approach—and its equipment—were hopelessly out of date. Liebich’s wife, Beth, tells this story: “Adam came home from school one day saying, ‘You aren’t going to believe what we did today. It was so cool! We were doing engineering, and we had egg cartons, and string and a board...’ And Richard exclaimed in dismay, ‘You’ve got to be kidding!’ He found out the school was still using early Apple computers from the 1970s, and sadly outdated software.”

Liebich went into action, and leveraged CLF’s resources to expand a promising high school technology program in use at 12 New York State schools into the national network it has become. (WPI is the program’s Massachusetts affiliate; see story, next page.)

“You see a lot of kids who tune out the system, because they don’t learn the way the system wants to teach them,” he says. “When they get into PLTW, they blossom, because it’s a new way of learning. Then, they’re willing to go back and suffer though a traditional math class—because now they understand why they’ve got to learn it and how they will use it.”

Although Liebich finds it gratifying to see individual students become inspired and succeed, he has his eye on the larger picture. “This is about the national prosperity,” he says. “In my business, my customers are engineers, and they’re all complaining about the engineering shortage. You put that together with the school piece, and you see we’ve got a real problem here. Our education system is in trouble. Manufacturing is in trouble. We, as a nation are in trouble.”

PLTW brings together industry, colleges and universities, and K–12 schools to provide high-caliber educational opportunities in the area of science, engineering, and technology. The curriculum, which is provided to schools on CD at no charge, is updated regularly. Teachers receive intensive training and ongoing support from the organization. The high school program involves four years of high-tech, hands-on courses that are modeled after university-level engineering courses, plus a capstone design project. Students complete their education with mathematics, science, and other courses from their schools’ own curriculum. PLTW is self-funded, with revenues coming from software leases and some equipment purchases.

The PLTW teaching method is based on studies showing that the majority of people learn best through direct experience, rather than lecture or theoretical methods. For example, Liebich points out, few people could learn how to assemble a wristwatch, given only a parts list and a lengthy instruction manual. “But if I handed you the watch, all in pieces, and I helped you put it back together, you would retain much more,” he says. “The mind sets up hooks that you can hang information on. If you have no hooks, the information just falls into a useless pile that the brain sweeps out on a regular basis. Your brain only retains things you have a use for.”

PLTW recently launched a middle school program called Gateway to Technology, and elementary school offerings are in the works. The program got some popular exposure when a PLTW teacher and students in Florida appeared on the “Extreme Makeover” television show, designing a 21st century bedroom for a youngster, and presenting him with a $60,000 scholarship to the University of South Florida, where the boy would like to learn to design robotic eyes for his blind father.

In June, Liebich returned to WPI for Reunion 2006 to accept the Alumni Association’s first-ever WPI Humani­tarian Leadership Award (read his full award citation at www.wpi.edu/Admin/Alumni/News/Awards/HLA/). In his acceptance speech, he downplayed his own achievements, saying: “In truth, this award belongs to the many people who recognize that your schools need to be transformed, rather than reformed.”

He speaks proudly of the strong enthusiasm that runs throughout the PLTW organization. “The support staff are some of our most enthusiastic supporters,” he says. “They’re out there, pumping away in their local schools. It’s fun being out there, trying to change the world. You don’t get very many opportunities to do that.”

To find out about PLTW in your state, and learn how you and your employer can get involved, go to www.PLTW.org.

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Last modified: Sep 28, 2006, 08:35 EDT
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