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Priming the Pipeline

By Joan Killough-Miller

PLTW calls for a “dynamic partnership” between the K–12 schools, industry, and higher education. In 2005, WPI joined in that partnership as the PLTW affiliate for Massachusetts. WPI also serves PLTW’s New England region as part of a coalition with the University of New Haven and New Hampshire Technical Institute. The start-up was funded by a generous donation to WPI from Edna and Doug Noiles ’44, who wanted to make a difference in K–12 education.

Martha Cyr ’87(MS), ’97(PhD), director of WPI’s K–12 outreach, serves as the state PLTW affiliate director, assisted by PLTW program manager Bonniejean Boettcher. They provide resources to Massachusetts schools offering PLTW programs, and are responsible for evaluating schools that seek PLTW certification.

Currently, over 20 schools in the state participate in PLTW, although Cyr anticipates that number could triple or even quadruple over time. “Once schools see how their students respond to PLTW, they are converted,” she says. “They like the way the kids get engaged in it. It’s extremely rewarding.”

PLTW’s strengths include the highly developed curriculum, which is extensively tested before release, and the high standards expected of participating schools. (Schools must sign a contract with a four-year commitment.) “I consider PLTW to be the premier, full-curriculum program for top-level high school students,” Cyr says. “It gives students the opportunity to experience real engineering, over multiple years.”

The Office of K–12 Outreach works with more than 40 WPI programs, of which PLTW is just one, offering a wide variety of opportunities in the areas of technological literacy and in science and mathematics learning and teaching. WPI is a fertile environment for PLTW programs, Cyr says, because the campus offers easy access to specialized laboratories and relevant research. PLTW fits in with the outreach office’s mission of offering students the opportunity to understand what engineering is, while they’re still in elementary and secondary school.

“This exposure lets students consider engineering as a career,” Cyr says. “They really need to get this exposure prior to college, because unlike most other disciplines, engineering is a field where you need to have made a career decision before you enter college, in order to hit the ground running.”

Indeed, graduates of pre-engineering programs such as PLTW have a much higher retention rate in college-level engineering programs, often because students know what they are getting into, and they are better prepared for the rigors of the discipline.

Intensive teacher training is a cornerstone of PLTW’s success, and WPI plays an important role by offering Summer Training Institute (STI) courses for teachers and guidance counselors. This “summer boot camp” runs five days a week for about eight hours a day. It covers a year’s worth of curriculum in 10 days. The classes are co-taught by experienced K–12 teachers and higher education personnel. This summer, professors Holly Ault ’74, ’83 (MS), ’88 (PhD) and Leffi Malloy joined Cyr in conducting the sessions, which included Introduction to Engineering Design, Digital Electronics, Civil Engineering and Architecture, and Aerospace Engineering.

The university perspective is important, says Cyr, because it helps inform teachers about what lies ahead for their engineering students in terms of postsecondary education and the preparation required for their chosen career tracks. At the same time, it gives high school teachers an opportunity to become familiar with WPI. An STI participant told Cyr last summer, “Now that I’ve been to WPI and seen the quality of its programs and the type of project work that its students do, I’m going to recommend that all my PLTW students apply here.”

As part of WPI's outreach, regional high school teachers spent two weeks taking classes and participating in other training activities on campus this summer. These educators returned to their respective schools this fall with new ideas—such as creating water filtration systems—that will enhance their science curricula.

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