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NMSU helps middle, high school teachers lead students to STEM success

Through two weeks of intense training?daylong classes followed by lengthy evening homework sessions?middle and high school teachers from Dona Ana County and around New Mexico learned in June what it takes to "lead the way" to advanced science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) success for their students.

The teachers were the latest in New Mexico to immerse themselves in Project Lead the Way, a national high school transformation program. This summer alone, New Mexico State University was instrumental in training 45 teachers to bring the program to their classrooms; nationally around 2,700 teachers took time out of their summer to get trained. A total of 350,000 students in 4,000 schools, located in all 50 states and Washington, D.C., are in Project Lead the Way programs.

Ricardo Jacquez, dean of the College of Engineering at NMSU, spoke to the trainees June 15 and let them know how valuable he found the program to be.

"You all are doing the right thing," he said. "You're doing the right thing for yourselves, therefore you are preparing to do the right thing for your students and your school, and for the state of New Mexico and the nation. I think very highly of the engineering discipline. It can do a lot of good for a lot of people in a lot of different ways. Engineers create technology, technology leads to business, business leads to industry, and industry leads to oh so much."

According to Anthony Hyde, affiliate university director for Project Lead the Way in New Mexico, the high school initiative is working to bring middle and high school students early exposure in the fields of engineering and biomedical sciences. Every Las Cruces middle and high school is involved with Project Lead the Way programs, and 24 high schools and a dozen middle schools statewide participate.

Hyde said Project Lead the Way "was set up was to address the shortage of engineers and people in the biomedical and health care professions. The reason it's successful is because it's not only helping recruit students; the biggest impact is it's getting kids to graduate from high school."

The initiative, designed to give students the opportunity to explore their interests by funding courses that allow them to explore aspects of engineering and technology in middle and high school, was picked up by Hyde in 2004 as a way to increase the number of students entering the engineering program at New Mexico State University, where he is a professor of engineering technology. NMSU signed onto the program in 2007 as an affiliate university, meaning the school supports the program and provides leadership.

"It's [Project Lead the Way] getting a lot of kids steered towards technical careers. It's good for NMSU because it's providing a bridge to the College of Engineering," he said. "It's been great for the state of New Mexico because it's helping build bridges from the high schools to the community colleges and the universities. We estimate we're going to have 5,000 kids in this program statewide in the fall."

The program, along with teacher training and supplies, is funded through tax revenue from the New Mexico Spaceport tax. Tuition, room and board for the two-week training costs approximately $3,400, but in addition to that the teachers have to have a laptop computer. And any travel associated with sending the teacher to training is extra as well.

In addition to the two-week intensive training, participating teachers engage in an online "virtual academy," with a listserv forum that encourages ongoing professional development.

To assist rural schools that may not have the resources to dedicate to sending a teacher to the training, this summer New Mexico's Project Lead the Way is offering the first online course in the country.

"We're trying to develop teacher training online; Project Lead the Way is using our model as a beta test case. That might be the wave of the future," Hyde said.

Phyllis Baca, a professor at Santa Fe Community College, has taken a two-year leave of absence from her teaching to work as co-affiliate director of Project Lead the Way in New Mexico. She is working under a Carl Perkins Grant to improve STEM throughout the state.

"We don't expect all of the students to turn into engineers, but they may go into any kind of technical trade - draftsmen, electronics, alternative energy - or they may make the hop to a bachelor's," she explained. "We want to nab those kids who are wobbling in ninth and 10th grade and just give them something to latch onto, the carrot being some college credit with all these opportunities: certificates, associate's, bachelor's degrees. They can do something instead of just being satisfied with minimum wage."

One of the major selling points of the program is that it offers dual high school and college credit for participating students.

Nationwide, Project Lead the Way students completing the program and then passing an AP-style exam can matriculate to 25 universities across the nation, including schools like NMSU, Purdue, Duke and Penn. Four community colleges in New Mexico support the program, with more interesting in joining.

"What we found in New Mexico working with the community colleges, is that for some of the classes we can align them and dual enroll them so they're getting credit now," said Baca, of the high school students. "At each community college they're aligned with different degrees, and then along with that NMSU has aligned each class with an NMSU college course."

For students interested in becoming involved with Project Lead the Way, the process can begin in middle school where students attending participating schools can enroll in a Gateway to Technology course, and follow up with seven foundation and specialization courses offered in high school. The foundation courses include Introduction to Engineering Design, Principles of Engineering and Digital Electronics. The specialization courses include civil and architectural engineering, mechanical and aerospace engineering, computer integrated manufacturing and engineering design.

Students interested in participating can visit pltw.org to find information on participating schools.