The future is bright

COTTONWOOD – Thanks to Project Lead the Way and passionate teacher Dan Hoffman, Lakeview Public School students have had a golden opportunity to obtain pre-engineering knowledge and hands-on skills for the past six years.

Project Lead the Way (PLTW) is the nation’s leading provider of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) programs, impacting more than 600,000 students in over 5,000 schools throughout all 50 states. The K-12 curriculum is helping students develop the skills needed to succeed in the global economy.

“It’s a field that, I think, is really rewarding,” Hoffman said. “We just need more people to get into it instead of hitting those walls and saying, ‘I can’t do that. It’s too hard.'”

Hoffman noted that PLTW first started in the late ’90s or early 2000s and started hitting Minnesota about 2005 or 2006, but the interest has not kept up with the real-world demands.

“Southwest Minnesota is pretty bare,” Hoffman said about pre-engineering courses at the high school level. “They need more workers to meet the needs of the people. They especially need more girls in the industry, too, because they give a perspective that is unique to women and it helps solve problems.”

According to the U.S. Department of Commerce, STEM-related jobs will grow 17 percent by 2018, which is nearly double the rate for non-STEM fields. It’s estimated that the U.S. will have more than 1.2 million unfilled STEM jobs because there will not be enough qualified workers to fill them.

“We have to break down that wall and let kids know that it’s not that hard,” Hoffman said. “You don’t have to necessarily be the engineer either. You can be the person who works with the engineer and still feel rewarded.”

Lakeview is currently the only high school in southwest Minnesota to offer pre-engineering courses. Montevideo is in the process of adding the curriculum, and along with Pipestone Area, already offers the Gateway to Technology (GTT) to middle school students.

“The biggest benefit is really, learning the life skills necessary to solve big problems and collaborate to solve those problems,” Hoffman said. “It doesn’t matter if you’re going to become an engineer, a draftsman or a journeyman. They all have to work together to solve that problem. And really, that’s what these courses teach, regardless of what the content is.”

Hoffman teaches a variety of pre-engineering courses, including Principles of Engineering (POE), Intro to Engineering Design (IED), Digital Electronics and Civil Engineering and Architecture. Wednesday morning, five Lakeview students – junior Josh Meiners and seniors Braden French, Seth Boerboom, Zach Doose and Michael Alness – presented their concept idea to solve a real-world problem in architecture to industry leaders, administrators and some of their peers.

“This was a fourth-quarter project, basically our capstone project in my Civil Engineering and Architecture class,” Hoffman said. “The students were given a problem, and they had to come up with a concept design for that. Since our school is trying to do this new addition right now, I thought it would be a good real-world opportunity for them to design a new high school wing, role-playing that it was 10 years from now. They did an awesome job.”

The task was not an easy one considering all the different aspects required of such a project, which had a budget limit of $15 million.

“There are so many things that have to be involved in it,” Hoffman said. “That makes it difficult. They have their special charts and use what they can with the knowledge that they have to try and come up with what they could. The key is that they went through the process and they understand that process. It’s a continual learning process, from Day 1 to the end.”

Calculations were one of the biggest challenges, the students said.

“The calculations take so much more time and effort than I fathomed,” Meiners said. “And if your numbers are wrong, a lot of other things can be off, too.”

Hoffman noted that in addition to the calculations, which came with the curriculum, the students also used an industry-based software program called Revit.

“It’s building modeling systems through Autodesk,” Hoffman said. “You can actually build walls. There’s a lot to it that even I haven’t dug into yet because it’s a huge program. But it’s one of the main ones used in the industry.”

Two state PLTW representatives, Jim Mecklenburg and Chuck Hentges, engaged in conversation with the students during the presentation, as did former industrial engineer Michael Horner, Cottonwood Building Center owner Darren Beck and Lakeview building maintenance professional Darrell Dirckx.

“I try to get people within the fields that I teach, so they can give insight to the students,” Hoffman said. “We’re also in our recertification year, so Jim and Chuck were also here for that.”

Mecklenburg challenged the students with a variety of questions. Afterward, he said he was impressed with the presenters.

“The kids did such a wonderful job,” Mecklenburg said. “What always amazes me is that when you’re discussing with the students and you’re asking them something technical, they’re able to respond in technical terms. That’s so important. Some of the questions were about the infrastructure and foundations, so all of a sudden, the level of communication goes up to where it’s a technical level.”

Mecklenburg also commented on the students’ effort.

“The initiative they have is most impressive,” he said. “They also understand teamwork, which equals success. Most employers will say that they can teach the skills, but they have to learn how to get along with other people. The students were learning that, which is really important.”

At the end of the project, the team of students built a model out of 3/16th Masonite, allowing people to see their design.

“We put down a floor plan so you could see the actual size and what the school already has,” Meiners said. “We included the addition that the school is already thinking about making because they’ll probably make it anyway. So we incorporated our design to go with it.”

For some of the students, building the model was the toughest part of the project.

“Making the model was the biggest challenge,” Doose said.

Boerboom agreed.

“The most frustrating part was building the model,” he said. “But it was also fun.”

If the students score high enough on the final exam, they’ll also receive three college credits for their efforts. Regardless, the opportunity also gave all of the students the experience they needed to decide whether or not to pursue a degree in one of the engineering fields.

“It helped me with my career path,” Boerboom said. “I’m going into ag engineering, so it was nice to get used to the computer programs.”

Alness plans to attend South Dakota State University for mechanical engineering.

“I found calculations fascinating,” Alness said.

Doose’s future plans include a physics degree from Southwest Minnesota State University.

“I like engineering in general,” Doose said. “I like the idea of designing cars.”

After attending Ridgewater College, French plans to take over the family farm.

Though only a junior, Meiners plans to attend the University of Minnesota for architecture.

“It’s exciting to work with the students,” Mecklenburg said. “I helped implement PLTW because I believe kids are our future. When you look at kids like this, our future looks pretty bright.”