With an ever-growing demand for new engineers, future employers are revving up career interest for students just clearing middle school. In a high-profile effort that will launch this week, three nonprofit educational groups and well-heeled corporate supporters are forming and funding engineering “academies” at 13 U.S. high schools by fall 2008. Organizers aim to have up to 110 such programs in place two years later that will include civil engineering and architecture among other fields that will be come part of high school curricula as  early as ninth grade

High Schoolers Are Engineering Early Birds
National Academy Foundation
Academy class in finance is template for engineering program.

The program will enable students to  take on top of their normal schedule an additional class or two in engineering courses specifically geared to their math and science ability and will involve presentations and hands-on projects. Biotechnology and aerospace engineering electives also will be available.

The engineering academy is the latest run by the National Academy Foundation, a New York City-based business-academic group. It already operates academies in finance, tourism,  hospitality and information technology for 50,000 U.S. high school students, NAF claims.

Collaborators for the engineering program are Project Lead the Way (PTLW), a training development group, and the National Action Council for Minorities in Engineering (NACME).

New York City’s Construction Trades, Engineering & Architecture high school is among the first 13 academy sites, with others in Atlanta, Los Angeles; Dallas; Las Vegas; San Francisco; Columbus, Ohio; Waco, Texas; San Diego; Burien, Wash., and Strathmore, Calif. The effort is funded primarily through corporate donations, including a $3-million grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and $1 million each from Motorola Corp., Verizon and Xerox Corp.

Entrance into the program will not be based on test scores or grades; any interested student can enroll in the engineering classes. “We didn’t want any testing requirements for the kids,” says Jon Reinhard, NAF’s academy development associate. “This isn’t about skimming off the cream of the crop. We want all kids to be the cream.” Classes will be taught by students’ regular high school teachers, who have taken two-week PLTW seminars.

Students must take three core classes: introduction to engineering, principles of engineering and digital electronics. Each student also must take a final capstone course in which they will select a problem and devise a solution using acquired en-gineering skills. There also are focused electives students may take concurrently to experience engineering practice and construction- project proposal development.

"This isn’t about skimming the cream. We want all kids to be the cream of the crop."
— Jon Reinhard, National Academy Foundation

“The idea is to give them practical experience in the field,” points out Crickett Thomas-O’Dell, PLTW director of school relations and marketing. “In civil engineering and architecture courses, students give presentations on proposed projects using 3-D modeling, budgets, zoning considerations and other real-life aspects of construction.” Students design their own construction projects also considering planning, surveying and soil-testing issues, she adds.

Academy organizers also hope to have students experience actual engineering work environments and challenges. “We talked to a lot of practicing engineers and industry professionals in developing courses,” says Richard Grimsley, PLTW vice president. “They stressed the importance of presentation skills and team-based work.” The current NACME chair is William P. Dee, president and CEO of engineer Malcolm Pirnie Inc., White Plains, N.Y. Bechtel Group Inc. regional president Charles E. Redman is on  NACME’s board.

Engineering education won’t stop at the classroom. Through NACME, students will have internship opportunities with nearby engineering and construction firms and can earn college credit for academy classes through local universities. “Even at this point, we are seeing interest from firms that want to partner,” says NACME Executive Vice President Irving P. McPhail. “We consider [the academy] a great avenue for kids to get immersed in the culture of engineering. This is all about preparation.”

McPhail acknowledges that students “won’t necessarily come out of this program ready to be hired right away as engineers, but that’s not the objective. They will have a solid grounding and be prepared to seek out higher education and training in the field.”