It has been years since Evan Withrow took one of Dana Edwards’ Project Lead the Way engineering classes at Soldotna High School. But the metallurgical engineering student still remembers how good it felt to take the classes that convinced him to be an engineer.
Students in district’s Principals of Engineering and Digital Electronics will spend the next year building increasingly complex circuits, building renewable energy sources, testing the tensile strength of everyday objects, learning what it takes to be an engineer.
Edwards said he has been teaching PLTW classes at Soldotna High School for five years and said there are similarities between each of his classes.
“Most of them have no idea what engineering is,” Edwards said. “They may have a dad or a mom that’s an engineer. They just really don’t have a good feel for what they do. So these classes give them a good idea of what engineering is all about.”
Withrow, a freshman at the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology said he was leaning toward becoming an engineer before he took the district’s introductory class in 2009.
“I’ve been interested in engineering for, I don’t know, for a long time. I’ve always been good at math. I saw the class and it looked interesting,” Withrow said. “It didn’t help me decide which type of engineering, but it definitely made me decide that I wanted to go into some type of engineering.”
The Project Lead the Way curriculum provides schools with a project-based curriculum tailored to science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
While the courses are structured similarly to career and technical education classes, teachers are certified through the national organization and follow a curriculum that focuses on engineering or biomedical science courses, depending on the track individual schools select.
Edwards said he was certified to teach the two courses offered at Soldotna High School, but wanted to expand the program to offer more advanced engineering courses.
Currently, the Project Lead the Way curriculum is offered in more than 4,000 schools in 50 states, according to the organization.
Edwards said some of the advanced classes like Aerospace engineering or Biotechnical engineering were alluring, but he wanted to make sure they would be a good fit for students in the area.
“There’s a civil engineering class that they teach which would probably be the next one that I would consider doing, but they also have computer-aided manufacturing,” he said.
For now, Edwards is leading another group of budding engineers through an engineering unit on hydrogen-powered cars.
“We try to do as many hands-on projects as we can,” he said. “They’re pretty cool. This is a hydrogen fuel cell that you fill with water. When you hook electricity up and run it through water electrolysis produces hydrogen and oxygen gasses. So one side will have hydrogen, the other side will have oxygen, then you can take two wires and hook it up to an electric motor and a hydrogen fuel cell.”
The goal is to see how fast or far model cars can be powered by the handheld fuel cells.
The twist, Edwards said, is that part of the unit is about other kinds of renewable resources as well and students get the chance to compare the types of energy.
“We’ll try to run a motor just with this solar panel and for the most part it’s a pretty small one so its not going to have a lot of luck running a motor, but you could — over a couple of hours— have this running and charging up this hydrogen fuel cell. Then you could take that hydrogen and use it to make your car go.”
The students will compare the output of the two.
“The hydrogen is a little bit more of a compact form of energy, a little bit more usable, you can get more power out of it. Solar just takes more time,” he said. “It gives the students a chance to see some of the issues and benefits between the two.”
Later during the semester, students will get the chance to bring objects into the classroom to try a tensile tester.
“People have brought in arrows to see how rigid they are,” Edwards said. “They’ve brought it things like an aluminum can to see how much it would take to crush one, or just to crinkle the sides. They take little bridge structures, basically anything that they could think of — within a reasonable size — that we could fit into the machine.”
From activities that allow students to watch objects get crushed, explode, race or heat up, they learn skills that can be used outside of the classroom.
In Edwards’ digital electronics class one of the first things students learn is how to solder.
Then, they’re given kits to help them build a basic dice-roller using chips, wires and computer boards.
Withrow said he learned how to keep track of his work, something he uses often in his chemistry lab.
“You get into the habit of writing things down. If you didn’t learn to record what you were doing then you’d have to repeat it over and over again. I think the organization is a good skill to have,” he said.
Edwards said the class also taught students how to put theories they learn in their other classes, into practice.
“It’s the idea of using those discoveries and scientific principals to solve problems,” Edwards said. “I use these examples from these classes in my math classes all the time. In the digital electronics class, we’ll start using natural logs and exponential functions. That’s Algebra II where you first get introduced to that.”
Soon, simple functions become complex objects.
“It seems like such a goofy little thing to make a light flash,” Edwards said. “But if you want to do it at a certain rate, you have to have certain numbers on your component; certain resistors, certain capacitors. So using that math to figure out those things is a good application.”
Some of the things he teaches his high school students are more complex than things Edwards remembers doing in college and the students surprise him every semester.
“It takes them a little while to start getting it but then pretty soon, they’ll be doing a project and all of the sudden ‘Hey Mr. Edwards, I did this, I changed this circuit a little bit and all of the sudden it makes it do this or that. It’s kind of cool when you see them go off on their own.”
The format of the class is easier than most college classes as well.
“We’re building things, like the circuitry and yeah, I did that as I got into college, but it was once a week for three hours,” Edwards said. “You’re doing it all year long here, you can absorb it much better.”
Soon Edwards’ engineering students will be moving into more complex projects like a building marble sorters.
“It always sounds sort of like, ‘pssh a marble-sorter, who cares.’ But, we sort them by color,” Edwards said. “We make a device that will sort. The most I’ve seen is four or five different colors. It always kind of freaks the students out.”
For Withrow, the classes are a fond memory from high school that he said other students should consider taking as well.
While he isn’t sure yet exactly what he’ll do with a metallurgy degree, Withrow said he’s hoping to work with sporting equipment.
“I grew up playing basketball, I’m a big sports junkie, so it would be really cool to design something that you can see being used, like maybe baseball bats or golf clubs or something along those lines,” he said.
He said he has good memories of learning basic programming and building robots.
The robotics kit came with an infrared sensor in it.
“So, if there was a chair or something, it would stop and turn around it,” Withrow said.
His family recently bought a Roomba, a small robotic vacuum cleaner that’s famous for its ability to sense and move around furniture, essentially cleaning carpets without the human-powered help.
Withrow watches the simple robot clean his house and considers the programming required to make it work.
“I think, ‘I could do that.’”
Rashah McChesney can be reached at email@example.com.