September 12, 2011 | last updated April 3, 2012 1:27 pm

WPI Program Prepares The Next Crop Of Engineers

Every year, Leominster High School teacher Todd Rathier finds his students respond particularly well to one classroom activity: putting bridges they've just constructed in a machine that tests their strength by destroying them.

"I award extra points for the most spectacular destruction," Rathier said.

Leominster is one of a handful of area schools that uses the Project Lead The Way (PLTW) engineering curriculum. PLTW itself is based in Clifton Park, N.Y., but the Massachusetts schools that use it are overseen by Worcester Polytechnic Institute, the local affiliate for the curriculum. Across the state, 26 schools use PLTW, most of them vocational schools.

In August, PLTW was one of six initiatives in the STEM — science, technology, engineering and mathematics — educational fields to receive a state endorsement that encourages other schools to adopt them.

Martha Cyr, the program's affiliate director at WPI, says she has seen competing pressures over the past few years on schools that are interested in offering the engineering program. On one hand, she says, more administrators are deciding that having a grounding in the subject can be a key to students' future education and careers: "To not offer the opportunity to take engineering courses really penalizes the students."

On the other hand, schools are facing serious budget pressures, and PLTW isn't cheap.

Cyr said schools pay just over $3,000 to send a teacher for a two-week training program on the curriculum. That includes room and board, since teachers are encouraged to stay on campus.

Schools also have to pay for equipment for the program, which ranges from $2,000 for a basic course on engineering design to $40,000 for a computer-integrated manufacturing class.

Software Licensing Costs

There's also an annual cost for software licenses of around $3,000.

"This is engineering that's not done with glue and paper and Popsicle sticks," Cyr said.

In some cases, schools are able to get corporate support for the curriculum. In particular, Intel Corp., through its Massachusetts headquarters in Hudson, has helped several local schools with PLTW-related expenses.

Cyr said WPI deliberately doesn't help schools get corporate funding because it wants school administrations to demonstrate commitment to the program. Rathier, the Leominster High teacher, said Intel provided his school with funding in 2003 to help get PLTW started there, but since then the only corporate money the school has received has come from a collaboration between PLTW and a robotics program the school also runs.

Rathier said it's not easy to get private funding for any program."We have to do a lot of footwork to get some," he said.

But he said that while the curriculum may be expensive by the school's standards, it's a good deal compared to what it would cost to license comparable software in the private sector, and it gives students the opportunity to use real professional engineering tools.

Ann Hurd, corporate affairs manager for Intel's northeast division, said Project Lead The Way is just one of a number of educational initiatives the company supports. She said the company is particularly focused on professional development for teachers in the STEM fields.

Hurd said Intel is working partly to build a pipeline for students who might ultimately work for the company, but it's also trying to ensure that consumers and workers in other parts of the economy will be tech savvy.

"Bottom line, the overall thinking here is that every student who graduates from school, in order to participate in the innovation economy, has to have a solid grounding in science, technology, engineering and math," she said.

As Project Lead The Way continues, Cyr hopes the state endorsement will translate into financial support for schools that want to adopt the curriculum. The state has discussed possible efforts to channel private money toward the six endorsed programs. Cyr said that in an ideal scenario, state and private money could be pooled into a fund and schools that want to adopt any of the programs could apply for funding.

"That would make a huge difference to a school," she said.

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