For STEM, it’s elementary

House bill would expand grant funds to lower grades
Students participate in Project Lead The Way's engineering program. (Courtesy photo)

As he approached 9th grade, Patrick Hoeing was considering two high schools in the Dover area. His choice ultimately led to his career. 

Hoeing attended an information session at Dover High School, where he received a curriculum pamphlet and noticed that it included pre-engineering courses. His middle school science teacher had encouraged him to consider engineering as a future career path, but Hoeing didn’t know much about the field.

“When I read at Dover they had classes that were pre-engineering, I realized I could take those classes and test the waters before I went to college, to decide if that’s what I wanted to do,” said Hoeing.

From freshmen to junior year, Hoeing attend

ed pre-engineering courses developed by the national education nonprofit Project Lead The Way that exposed him to engineering fundamentals, analysis, technical writing, coding, electrical circuitry and his favorite: computer-aided design. 

“That was huge to get access to that software for three years and get experience and familiarity with that program,” said Hoeing. “We also got access to 3D printers, laser cutters, routers and got to practice with that.” 

When Hoeing interviewed for summer internships, his CAD experience was the skill that stood out most to employers, who took a double take at the years of experience on his resume. After all, he’s now 22 years old. 

It was this skill that led Hoeing to work two summers in Rochester at Continental, a manufacturer of air induction systems for car engines and a subsidiary of ContiTech North America. Hoeing is currently a full-time employee at Continental while attending the University of New Hampshire part-time to earn a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering.

After being shown the ropes, Hoeing became part of a team that designed the new layout of one area of the plant. 

“I got to do the CAD work for the layout and do the planning for that, so I was able to bring that skill to the table,” said Hoeing. He said that what he learned through Project Lead The Way “gives you a tangible skill and helps get you involved in a lot of projects and makes you a valuable team player.”

Expanding curriculum 

Launched in New Hampshire in 1998, one year after its founding, Project Lead The Way’s programs have spread to 47 schools in New Hampshire in the form of elementary, middle school or high school curricula. Each school has an approved list of optional pre-engineering curricula it can adopt or create its own, as the Nashua School District has done for its three middle schools.

“Project Lead The Way is certainly the most well-known of the pre-engineering curricula,” said Val Zanchuk, president of Jaffrey-based manufacturer Graphicast and chair of both the NH Pre-Engineering Technology Advisory Council and the Business and Industry Association of New Hampshire.

While many states mandate Project Lead The Way as their pre-engineering curriculum, said Zanchuk, New Hampshire does not, as education curricula are decided by individual school districts.

Historically, the state Department of Education allocates $200,000 each budget biennium for optional pre-engineering courses, although no funding has been allocated for this budget cycle as of press time.

Middle schools are eligible for a grant up to $15,000; high schools, $25,000; and Career and Technical Education Centers, $50,000. The grant amount must be matched by the school district, though funds may also be donated by businesses.

So far, none of that money has been left on the table, said Zanchuk. 

On March 9, the House passed House Bill 412 by voice vote to expand grant funding to the elementary level.

As the bill awaits consideration in the Senate, Zanchuk told NH Business Review that while the bill would expand the pool of potential grant recipients, it would not require an extravagant amount of extra funds. The reasoning: Materials for younger grades are simple and cheap, and many high schools have already implemented the program and already paid the one-time fee for more expensive materials, such as a robotics kit and CNC machines, which can cost up to $10,000.

‘At their level’

“It’s actually a very affordable program,” said Heather Drolet, a teacher at Christa McAuliffe School, an elementary school in Concord. “It cost $750 to train me and it’s $750 a year to be part of the program at the elementary level.”

Much of the classroom materials can be purchased at the a discount store or have been donated, said Drolet. Integrating the STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) program has gone smoothly, though Christa McAuliffe School has an advantage, since students receive their own iPad.

“It’s really engaging,” said Drolet of the curriculum. “There’s not a single kid that’s disinterested and disengaged … The program is good at meeting the kids at their level. Every project or problem they have to solve is a story, and the characters are the same from grades K through 5.”

The school adopted the curriculum two years ago. Drolet said the move was a response to a decrease in the number of high schoolers enrolling in pre-engineering programs. 

Since implementing the program, “We’ve seen a huge increase in interest among our kids in engineering, especially after we do Engineering Week,” said Drolet.

“The way of thinking Project Lead The Way has brought us has helped us grow in other areas too,” said Drolet. “We call them the four C’s: creativity, communication, collaboration and critical thinking.”

Changing the learning format has also flipped classroom dynamics, said Drolet. Students who are book learners and rely on direction are challenged to analyze problems and develop solutions, while students who are not traditional learners thrive in a different setting.

The school had earlier crafted a letter to the House Education Committee in support of HB 412. “Our kids could really benefit from this type of funding because they’re definitely capable of learning these skills at a young age,” said Drolet.

Worker shortage

Hoeing, who is a strong believer in and becoming an advocate for Project Lead The Way — he spoke earlier this year at a conference for the nonprofit held at NH Technical Institute in Concord — responded positively to the idea of exposing the concepts to younger students.

“I remember hearing about how it starts in middle school, where people differentiate and turn away from the sciences and the hard math, and offering the engineering perspective at that age might help, because if someone can learn the application of what they’re learning in math and science, it might motivate them to stick with it and try harder,” he said.

A shortage of STEM-skilled workers in the high-tech fields is a pressing issue continuously raised in meetings held by the NH Department of Resources and Economic Development with industry stakeholders and education administrators across the state.

“We need to hit all cylinders — all the ways we can to increase the proficiency of the workforce, through students or retraining workers or bringing people in,” said Zanchuk.

Drolet said Project Lead The Way builds skills across the board that employers desire, such as collaboration and critical thinking.

“I’ve just done some research for a program on coding and computer science and there are about 1,700 open computing positions in New Hampshire but only 300 college graduates in the state,” said Drolet, citing the nonprofit “It just showed me we need to engage our students at a younger age.”  

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