Ledyard schools aim to draw more kids into STEM

Ledyard Middle School seventh-graders Wesley Hughes, 13, and Savannah Wahrer, 13, design and build truss bridges out of balsa wood in their Engineering class at the school in Gales Ferry Tuesday Nov. 25, 2014.
Ledyard Middle School seventh-graders Wesley Hughes, 13, and Savannah Wahrer, 13, design and build truss bridges out of balsa wood in their Engineering class at the school in Gales Ferry Tuesday Nov. 25, 2014.

Ledyard - It has been a decade since Ledyard High School became one of the only schools in southeastern Connecticut to offer engineering classes through Project Lead the Way, a national science and technology curriculum.

Now, the school system is making plans to extend engineering offerings to younger grades beginning in the 2015-16 school year.

The expansion, Assistant Superintendent of Schools Jennifer Byars said, is the latest multi-year capital project of the Ledyard Education Advancement Foundation. The 2015-16 start date for the middle school engineer classes was originally wishful thinking but, with the help of a $15,000 grant from Dow Chemical, that "went from a dream to a reality," said Byars.

Project Lead the Way, a nonprofit organization, provides training and curriculum materials for science, technology, engineering and mathematics classes for kindergarten through 12th grade.

Ledyard currently offers a sequence of engineering design and electronics electives at Ledyard High School that allow students to earn up to 14 credits at the University of New Haven. The classes, usually capped at around 25 students, fill up quickly.

"I'm an engineer and it's a personal mission of mine to try to introduce every student I meet to the possibility of looking into a STEM career," said Elizabeth Peterson, president of LEAF and a member of the LHS Project Lead the Way advisory committee.

But Peterson, a nuclear engineer at Dominion and the president of the local chapter of the Society of Women Engineers, said there's just one problem: those popular high school courses are only attracting between zero and two girls per class.

“It is a constant challenge to get girls to enroll in engineering classes,” said LHS engineering teacher Charles Estabrooks. “I have had classes with no girls, and rarely are there more than 3 or 4 girls in any one class.”

Estabrooks said he has attended workshops, read articles and spoken to colleagues about the problem, but has “not seen any change in the gender balance.”

By expanding the engineering curriculum to middle school next year and eventually down through kindergarten, Peterson hopes that engineering classes "will just be a norm instead of an afterthought" for girls.

The program, she said, will offer "fun hands-on things that are relevant to the kids," improve problem solving and prepare students for a well-paid career that is competitive in the global economy.

Project Lead the Way's middle school curriculum is called "Gateway to Technology," and Byars said the district plans to integrate it into the mandatory 7th and 8th grade technology education classes.

To do that, LEAF will need to raise $20,000 more through it usual fundraising process to purchase materials and send teacher and administrators to Project Lead the Way training.

Once that is done, Peterson said, the school district can expand its engineering offerings to the 400 middle school students.

“Students who will have gone through the (Gateway) program will already be familiar with the fundamental principles of engineering design, problem solving, and other critical and creative thinking required for a comprehensive understanding of engineering and technology,” said Estabrooks.

“With the (middle school) program in place,” he continued, “I will be able to take students further in their STEM education and hopefully to deeper levels of understanding.”

The half-year technology education courses, in which students do hands-on activities like building balsa wood truss bridges, already include more math and science than they used to, Ledyard Middle School Principal Chris Pomroy said.

"It's changing," said Keith Kobelski, who has taught technology classes at Ledyard Middle School for more than 15 years. He said he's started incorporating more mathematics and science principles into his classes in recent years and will add even more after attending Project Lead the Way training in the summer.

Kobelski said he doesn't notice a difference in interest level between the boys and girls in his classes, and Byars and Peterson speculate that updating the classes may lead more girls to sign up for the high school engineering sequence.

Byars said the full K-12 Project Lead the Way curriculum, which Ledyard plans to adopt over the course of five years, also incorporates the Next Generation Science Standards that Connecticut plans to adopt in the near future.

k.catalfamo@theday.com

Twitter: @kccatalfamo

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