Hands-on engineering education in Chaska

  • Article by: PATRICE RELERFORD , Star Tribune
  • Updated: November 12, 2007 - 10:07 AM

Chaska High is one of about a half-dozen schools in the west-metro area that let students get a taste of engineering work with project-based classes, which can qualify for college credit.

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Chaska High School teacher Rob Jacobs helped senior Casey Schanzenbach with a computer design program during his preengineering class.

Chaska High School technology students these days are spending hours at their computer workstations poring over assignments that deal with fundamental engineering and design principles.

They're laying the foundation for the time when they'll get a chance to re-engineer and create machines of their own.

It's only a few weeks away.

"I need you, Jacobs," a student said while staring at a computer screen.

Rob Jacobs -- students call him by his last name or "Jakes" -- walked to the teen's desk and talked him through a drafting exercise. Then he peeked at other students' computers and returned to the front of the room.

The veteran technology teacher relies on a keen ear and quick movements to lead his students through a 90-minute class.

His quick steps mirror the pace of the work involved with the high school's second year in Project Lead the Way, which combines hands-on projects with college-prep math and science courses to introduce high school students to the rigors of college engineering programs.

"The idea is to give them a background in materials and machines," Jacobs said. "Instead of just talking about [engineering], I try to show them. Then they do it themselves."

A national effort

Since 2006, Chaska's pre-engineering and aviation offerings have grown from two to five classes. Each offers college credit. Chaska launched its program with an $85,000 grant from the Kerns Family Foundation, which helped pay for new equipment, including computers with three-dimensional design software.

Chaska plans to add robotics and manufacturing courses to its technology department next year.

More than 100 middle and high schools participate in the program statewide. In the west-metro area, Eden Prairie, Maple Grove, Park Center, Robbinsdale Armstrong, Robbinsdale Cooper and Wayzata high schools offer Project Lead the Way courses.

Project Lead the Way is based on research suggesting that real-world long-term projects that integrate math, science and technology boost achievement and expose students to potential careers. Colleges and universities, including partners such as the University of Minnesota and St. Cloud State University, view the program as a way to help strengthen the skills of incoming students.

'It's a good addition'

Twenty pairs of eyes were glued to Jacobs one recent morning as he used a blow torch to heat metal wires during an introduction to electrical sources including heat, light and chemicals.

"Everything we do in this class is hands on," Chaska High senior Joe Seiffert said, who is enrolled in a principles of engineering course. The 17-year-old isn't sure if he'll major in engineering in college but said he's glad to have a head start if he does.

"It's a good addition to the programs at our school," Seiffert said.

Project Lead the Way courses require students to keep a portfolio of their homework, in-class assignments and long-term projects.

One of those projects involves disassembling a common item -- Seiffert's group chose a fan; another picked a fishing rod -- and developing a plan to re-engineer it based on principles they've learned in class.

Jacobs said students from another class will make a movable marble-sorting device as their final project. They'll work independently on the machine and check in with him periodically, as they would in a college course.

"It's a well-done program," Jacobs said. "My goal is to cover each of those lessons with depth so that they're prepared when they come to the final project."

Last year more than 40 Chaska students passed the exams required for college credit. The tests were prepared by the University of Minnesota.

"The carrot is college credit," Jacobs said. "But a big part of it is getting them excited about doing this."

Patrice Relerford • 612-673-4395

  • For more information about Project Lead the Way, visit www.pltw.org.

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