Project Lead The Way: a bloom on the STEM

In the school system, it’s known as PLTW. That stands for Project Lead The Way. It could as easily stand for Preparation Leading To Work.

There are several other career-focused programs in LCPS, but PLTW is unique for its level of involvement with the local business community, particularly with manufacturers. That partnership was on public display Tuesday night during the second annual Capstone Presentation event, where PLTW students pitched their ideas for new and unusual products to a panel of judges representing some of Lenoir County’s best employers. The event was organized by the Lenoir County Manufacturers Association and sponsored by quintet of local businesses. Another four key employers — West Pharmaceutical, DuPont, Lenoir Memorial Hospital and Lenoir Community College — sponsored scholarship awards that went to winning teams from South Lenoir and Kinston high schools. (See The Free Press http://tinyurl.com/kf95jex)

As all good partnerships do, this one brings obvious benefits to both parties. PLTW programs in all three of our traditional high schools get financial support, encouragement and mentoring help from businesses and institutions in Lenoir County. That involvement brings a real-world flavor to the program that helps define it. Our PLTW program currently focuses on engineering and technical skills. It’s easier for students to get excited about tackling the STEM curriculum (science, technology, engineering and math) if they can see that it leads to interesting jobs that also happen to be in high demand and if they can talk to and work with people who do those jobs in our county.

PLTW isn’t a vocational program. It doesn’t teach a particular job. It won’t give the world another bricklayer or executive assistance, though other programs under our Career and Technical Education (CTE) umbrella do just that. Instead, PLTW teaches higher level technical skills like problem solving, design and engineering that apply to a number of professions.

And — here’s the critical link — it teaches skills that local employers (like members of the Lenoir County Manufacturers Association) say they need by the truckload.

“STEM is very important to all manufacturing operations because all things in manufacturing are a part of science,” Bruce Parson, LCC’s business manager and a former manufacturing plant manager, told PLTW students Tuesday night. “You have to have a knowledge of math and technology in manufacturing.”

Donna Wilfong, co-owner of Domestic Fabrics, a surviving textile operation in Lenoir County, said her industry needs “electrical engineers, mechanical engineers, chemical engineers — many things are available to you if you choose science and technology.”

Lenoir Memorial Hospital is not a manufacturing plant, of course, but Constance Hengel of LMH pointed out Tuesday night that no employer in Lenoir County relied on science and technology skills more than the hospital. “The future of health science knows no limits for our youth today. Our industry encourages and supports creative minds to be the generation to discover the cure for the common cold, cancer, AIDS, and broken necks that result in quadriplegia,” she said. “Science has transformed how we take care of the sick today.”

To this, she added, “Thank you Lenoir County schools for boosting education for science and technology in ways that youth can begin to see themselves taking part of the world around them with real skills and innovative thinking. Employers need these minds and skills, and Lenoir County’s future health and success is dependent on our focus in this area.”

It is not only LCPS’s pleasure to assist in this way, it is our purpose. Nationwide, businesses — particularly manufacturers — have long voiced concerns that schools aren’t teaching students what they need to know to join the workforce. That’s a problem for which PLTW and its business partnerships are a solution. By their involvement, by taking a role in the educational process, businesses can be more assured of developing quality future hires. As Barnet plant manager and LCMA president Randy Brown said, that involvement “helps us align the growth and development of our industry” with LCPS’s educational goals.

The world will always need humanities majors, just not as many of them. We probably have enough attorneys already and a few English majors go a long way in this job market. A quick check of the online classifieds, however, will tell you who’s getting hired and who’s making the bucks. Not all of our 9,400 students are destined for STEM-oriented occupations, but LCPS is working to awaken that interest in any that might be, to offer them opportunities like PLTW and, with the help of our business partners, to put them on a path to a prosperous future.