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'Project Lead the Way' Promotes Careers in Engineering, Science

Schools around the United States are trying to interest students in science and engineering, and are getting help from the aerospace and high tech industries. Project Lead the Way, which uses industry-designed curricula, is offered in over 1,300 schools in 45 U.S. states and the District of Columbia. Mike O'Sullivan tells us how the program is attracting students in the California desert.

Antelope Valley, on the western edge of the Mojave desert, is home to Edwards Air Force base, where the space shuttle sometimes lands and where the experimental X-15 aircraft set many speed and altitude records. The region has facilities of the aerospace companies Boeing and Northrop Grumman, and Lockheed Martin develops and assembles advanced and secret aircraft. Nearby, at the new Mojave spaceport, aerospace entrepreneur Burt Rutan launched the first private manned spaceflight in 2004.

The Valley is also home to new housing developments and a growing population of school-age youngsters. And local schools are working with the aerospace companies to get students interested in careers in the field.

Randy Scott, a retired Air Force engineer, says the industry provides curricula and other support. He stresses that it's not necessarily monetary support. "It might be in terms of mentors. It might be in terms of helping out after school, whatever it might be, from the standpoint of that's the future workforce. In addition, they're dealing with the sons and daughters of the current workforce, which need to be supported also."

In the desert city of Palmdale, 3300 students attend Pete Knight High School, named after the test pilot who holds the world speed record for a winged, powered aircraft. Ken McKinney, a systems engineer with Lockheed Martin, helps out in the classroom and talks up science and mathematics. "When you apply math, it's pretty fun," he tells the students. "It's the language of the universe. And science is really fun. The science of physics is projectiles. The science of chemistry is blowing things up. And if you study these long enough, you get to combine them, and that's pretty cool. And someone's going to pay you to do that. And so that kind of the journey we go on."

Students are responding. Freshman Angela Ortega hopes to become a structural engineer. "I've been interested in math and science forever," she says. "They're my favorite subjects. Engineering sounded like a good option."

The school's principal, Susan McDougal, grew up in this desert region after her father came here to work on the X-15. She says the area is rich with career opportunities, and teachers are trying to keep options open for the students. "And part of that is keeping them engaged in school," she explains. "So programs like Project Lead the Way keep our students engaged in school, keep them focused on their studies, so that they have a goal when they leave here."

This high school has two rocket teams, which have competed in national competitions in each of the past two years. Senior student Jose Ochoa says that designing rockets got him away from the television and into science. "Rocket club in general sparked that, because I had to go home and instead of watching TV, I had to learn how to derive equations and how to use software to create these rockets that could perform the way I wanted them to perform." Ochoa will graduate from high school this year, and plans to study engineering at San Jose State University. He says he hopes to return later to work for an aerospace company.

Ellen Bendell of Lockheed Martin says Project Lead the Way is a kind of community service for both her company and the engineers who help out with the program. She says it also serves the interests of the aerospace industry, which faces a shortage of engineers and technical workers. "The objective is to create a pipeline in the schools that will help feed from elementary school into the middle school into the high school, through the junior college and into the universities, and then hopefully of course to recruit those people that we are going to be needing."

To fuel that pipeline, schools in Antelope Valley offer special classes in robotics, architectural engineering and other technical fields. At Pete Knight High, the focus is on rockets, and teacher Bill Lewis says his students get a first-hand view of the aerospace industry. "The students were able to take a tour of the local Lockheed facility, and last year the students said that was the best field trip they had ever been on, and they really, really enjoyed it. Some of them have decided now that aerospace engineering is really what they want to follow." He says other students decide that engineering is not for them, but their exposure to the field gets them thinking about other technology careers.