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Preparing students for the road ahead.

Too many students fresh out of high school, including many who earned very good grades, find themselves overwhelmed by what is expected of them in college-level engineering, mathematics and science classrooms and course assignments. Those who go from high school straight to the workplace may have similar reactions to the stark reality of the daily grind of unfamiliar, real-world problems with no obvious solutions, conflicts that someone expects them to solve unassisted and on deadline.

They may wonder, "What? You want me to figure this out for myself, without a teacher standing over my shoulder and telling me how?" As their deficiencies become evident, they may wrestle with the fear and shame that come from having to admit they're struggling. It is a very cold shower to realize, as they stare into the mirror each morning, "They didn't prepare me for this in high school."

Mathematics and the Workload

There is a distinct disconnect between the typical high school curriculum and postsecondary and career-related expectations.

In his issue brief for the National High School Center in Washington, D.G., "Preparing High School Students for Successful Transitions to Postsecondary Education and Employment," Michael Bangser of the nonprofit, nonpartisan education and social policy research organization MDRC, writes, "Students' high school experiences often do not prepare them adequately for postsecondary education and the world of work." (1)

For many students in engineering programs, college "is the first time they've ever been seriously academically challenged," (2) says Michael L. Murray in the article "3 Reasons for High Engineering School Dropout Rates." He continues, "For straight-A students, failing an exam, or failing a class and having to take it a second time, can be a crushing blow to their academic self-confidence," (3) causing them to have second thoughts about their major.

And the workload in an engineering program can be brutal. Murray states, "While the standard rule for a college degree program is that each hour of classwork will result in two hours of homework, the ratio for engineering degree programs is closer to four-to-one." (4)

And when our students go to work without college, they face professional challenges they may be unprepared for. In my estimation, too many of our students receive high school diplomas largely lacking the career focus, skills and perspective required for success.

We must teach our students how to meet these standards. I would be remiss if I didn't point out that CTE programs across the country are working to change this grim outlook. How better to accomplish this than with a balanced academic and work-based approach to engineering education at the high school level?

CTE Leads the Way in Suburban Kansas City

In western Missouri, the Lee's Summit School District, where I teach, has had much success with a local cooperative education program inspired by the Chinese proverb: "Tell me and I'll forget; show me and I may remember; involve me and I'll understand."

In our case, "involve" applies both to students learning the needs of the engineering profession and to businesses learning how to make the best use of young talent. We embrace the National Academy of Engineering recommendations that "Engineering schools should lend their energies to a national effort to improve math, science, and engineering education at the K-12 level, and that "The engineering education establishment should participate in a coordinated national effort to promote public understanding of engineering and technology literacy of the public." (5)

At Lee's Summit, our objective is to create an instructional environment that allows each student to see and do exactly what all engineers do on a daily basis.

How It Works

Students in the senior-level Engineering Field Experience course, offered in the spring, are afforded the opportunity to work with one of two organizations. Our morning-session students go on site with the Lee's Summit Public Works (LSPW) Department's engineering and planning staff. Our afternoon-session students work with the engineering staff at HDR, Inc., a corporation specializing in wastewater treatment and conveyance.

Students admitted into the cooperative program must have first completed our Engineering Design and Development course. Offered in the fall semester, this course prepares students for the springtime program by requiring them to work in teams on an open-ended problem they research and then design and construct a solution for, which helps them to build their collaboration and teamwork skills. Guided by engineering mentors, students apply principles developed in earlier courses and learn advanced physics and mathematical applications that challenge them academically. Design teams present progress reports, submit a final written report and defend their solutions to a panel of Kansas City-area engineering professionals at the end of the semester.

Then, in the spring semester, the Engineering Field Experience course connects the students with working engineers at LSPW and HDR two days per week. This is when they get that hands-on, real-world experience employers are looking for in their new hires.

These two organizations involve the students in current or planned infrastructure projects involving roads, traffic, wastewater conveyance, rainwater runoff and more. The remaining three days per week are spent in the classroom learning the fundamentals of fluid statics and fluid dynamics, most of which will be applied directly to the projects for LSPW and HDR.

In school and at the worksites, the engineers and I (as the course's teacher since its inception) continually assess the students' understanding--conceptual and computational. For example, the LSPW staff requires student design teams to explain their progress when their projects are about 40 percent completed, and then explain again at 80 percent completion. These defenses are in conjunction with daily assessments I give regarding topics in mathematics, fluid mechanics and other study topics proposed by the engineers. Both LSPW and HDR students conclude the school year by providing final design presentations that I classify as their summative assessment.

How We Started

The Engineering Design and Development course and the Engineering Field Experience are part of the Summit Technology Academy (STA), founded by the school district in 1998-99. From the start our aim has been to provide students not only with a learning environment focused on academic rigor, but also with a career-path focus.

Having come from a hi-tech environment, I wanted to move my students out of the classroom and into the field with professional engineers as soon as possible. Realization of this goal began in 2001 when I called the Lee's Summit mayor's office and made inquiries about work-based learning opportunities. This led to a call back from the city engineer, who brought in the director of public works, both of whom have been ardent supporters of our ideas from the beginning.

Today, STA offers 10 courses encompassing college-preparatory level offerings in engineering, nursing, biomedical, international studies, digital media, computer networking and other areas. All of STA's courses provide off-site experiences with local professionals. More than 400 junior and senior high school students from 18 sending school districts are taught by 15 faculty members and seven administrative and support staff.

Two-way Benefits and Proud Parents

Former student Lindsey Thompson writes, "While working alongside HDR engineers, I not only received firsthand exposure working on real-world civil engineering problems..., but I also gained experience in an office setting that prepared me for the professional atmosphere I would encounter as a summer intern throughout my undergraduate years."

Lindsey later earned a bachelor of science in architectural engineering from Kansas State University and is now an electrical project engineer at a consulting engineering firm in Houston, Texas.

John Kevern, civil engineering associate professor from the University of Missouri-Kansas City, says, "I have had several of Dr. Rutherford's former students in my engineering courses and have found them uniquely qualified for the rigors of an engineering degree program, possessing a good mathematics and physics background and with realistic expectations of how their future occupations can impact society .... [They] are prompt, do not miss assignments and are generally more courteous and respectful than the average incoming student."

Engineers at LSPW say they enjoy working with our students. "The exposure to basic engineering concepts is beneficial," says Senior Staff Engineer Shannon Jeffries, "but more importantly, professionals are able to discuss with students the importance of communication, teamwork, leadership and project management."

It's a two-way benefit. The engineering and city planning/development personnel say they get fresh ideas from our students. The engineers often remark that the students see things and grasp concepts differently and arc more open to "thinking outside the box," as they are not encumbered with years of schooling and certain ways of conducting business. This has always been very refreshing to the LSPW staff.

Lee's Summit Mayor Randy Rhoads is a retired engineer who involves himself with our program whenever possible. He always attends the students' final design presentations in May.

Grateful parent Ruth Hayes wrote this in an end-of-year letter: "The engineering experts in my son's wastewater treatment plant field experience, together with his teacher, created situations that forced him to use his knowledge and to diligently search for solutions. They gave him opportunities to work as a team member and placed him in positions of leadership where he learned to excel."

In the city of Lee's Summit, parents can drive down a street and see a project in progress or finished, knowing that their son or daughter played a critical role in its development.

Maintaining and Strengthening Relationships

It is one thing to convince a city and a business to invest time and energy in student achievement. It is quite another to generate the energy required to maintain that commitment. To do so, a teacher must:

* Openly and consistently communicate.

* Get to know business partners and their businesses.

* Ask their opinions.

* Attend business functions on occasion.

* Openly and frequently show appreciation.

Educators often chant the mantra: "Rigor, relevance, relationships." It is my experienced opinion that if the third is not fostered, the first two won't matter.

I prepare my students both academically and professionally to present themselves as young adults eager to learn. I will not tolerate anything short of that because our cooperative environment could disappear very quickly if we did not foster positive relationships--with everyone at HDR and with the entire Public Works staff, the mayor and the city council.

Pay Now or Pay Later

Some years ago, FRAM oil filters had a television commercial that used the phrase, "Pay me now, or pay me later." The same philosophy holds true regarding preparation of our children, K-12, for the rigors of life and the work that lies ahead, foundations of CTE. Academics and career relevance must go hand-in-hand in order for our children and our economy to flourish in the global marketplace. Tech

By Paul Rutherford

Paul Rutherford, Ph.D., is the Engineering Design and Development and the Engineering Field Experience instructor at Summit Technology Academy in the Lee's Summit school district in Missouri. He is a veteran U.S. Navy aircraft maintenance officer. He can be reached at


(1.) Bangser, M. (2008). Preparing high school students for successful transitions to postsecondary education and employment. National High School Center at the American Institutes for Research: Washington, D.C. Retrieved from:

(2.) Murray, M. L. (n.d.). 3 Reasons for high engineering school dropout rates. Retrieved from:

(3.) Ibid.

(4.) Ibid.

(5.) National Academy of Engineering of the National Academies. (2005). Educating the engineer of 2020: Adapting engineering education to the new century The National Academies Press: Washington, D.C.

By Paul Rutherford
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Title Annotation:CTE Leads the Way
Author:Rutherford, Paul
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Feb 1, 2015
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