Engineering a curriculum for tech careers

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Sophie Remmey, a Wall High School senior and member of the Pre-Engineering Academy, has been working on cutting-edge robotics project with teacher Dan Leonard since the beginning of the school year for her senior research project. [MARK R. SULLIVAN/THE COAST STAR]

WALL TOWNSHIP — When Wall Township High School teacher Dan Leonard pitched the idea of a Pre-Engineering Academy nine years ago, he knew that the next big leap in academics would be in science, technology, engineering and math [STEM] programs. 

This spring, students who were freshmen in the academy’s first class in 2013 will be graduating from college.

The Pre-Engineering Academy is a rigorous four-year long program offered for incoming students with an interest in engineering. Each year, about 20 to 25 students are accepted into the academy, which emphasizes not only engineering but professional development beyond high school.

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Courses include years of honors math and science courses, AP Calculus and other AP science courses and four years of engineering courses: introduction to engineering for freshman, advanced engineering for sophomores, robotics and programming for juniors and finally a senior-year research capstone course that sounds right out of a college coursebook.

 “It’s an experience that very few high school students get,” Mr. Leonard said.

Mr. Leonard, who is the director of the academy, said he recognized when he first began teaching at Wall High School in 2007 that the school had a tremendous math and science department, and he thought an engineering program could be just what the school needed.

“I knew nine years ago that this was going to be beneficial and I kept pushing it and pushing it and now we’re finally getting the evidence for that,” he said.

Students who have gone through the academy have gone on to include mechanical engineers, an environmental engineer and a bioengineer, Mr. Leonard said. He also said he has two “overachiever” former students of the academy including one who graduated from Stockton University in two years and is now in medical school and another who graduated from New York University in three years and now works as a software engineer at Amazon’s headquarters in Seattle. 

“We have a phenomenal math and science department here [at Wall High School], so they’re really prepared and really know their stuff when they first get to college … our graduates know so much already when they walk in the door,” Mr. Leonard said.

Mr. Leonard, who comes from a large family of educators, said he was torn between studying physics or engineering when he was a college student. At The College of New Jersey, he found a program that was an engineering school but was teaching-focused.

When he started teaching, he saw students go off and study engineering at colleges only to stumble. 

“We had so many smart kids that were great at math and science and going into engineering, but they had no actual experience in engineering. They didn’t know what they were getting into,” he said.

“When I started this [classroom] was an old school wood-shop/metal-shop kind of room. I’ve just kept building and building the engineering component in the classroom,” he said. “Since [the academy] began it’s just exploded.” 

Now the classroom includes computers and various technology projects his senior class have been researching in teams since the beginning of the school year. Mr. Leonard has been asked to speak in other schools about how to get a program like the pre-engineering program started in their district.

One of his senior students, Emma Milkowski, has been working on building a mechanical arm that can move its hand based on sensors connected to her forearm.

“We just thought it’d be cool … we don’t know what the end function of this will be, but we thought it would be useful to be able to have a mechanical arm that you can move indirectly,” she said. 

“It’s been a really good experience. I’ve learned a lot” over the last four years, Emma said.

“I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do in the future and I thought being exposed to engineering would help me decide,” she said. She plans to study to become a physical therapist.

Professional development skills are one of the biggest points of emphasis for the academy, after engineering. Beginning freshman year, students begin simple skills like how to write a professional email.

Throughout their time in the academy, students will have guest speakers from professional engineers and college professors, resume workshops and interview workshops.

“By the time they leave, they have a rock-solid resume; they have interview skills; they’ve networked with people,” Mr. Leonard said.

The academy also has an advisory board of about 15 local community members who are involved in the world of engineering, to keep the academy updated on what’s happening or changing right in the field so students learn the most relevant engineering topics.

For example, Mr. Leonard said, the academy was informed how important drones have become in civil engineering recently.

“I try to get out and talk with as many people as I can to find out what the colleges want, what the industry wants and how we can kind of predict what skill sets we want these guys to have and that’s what we base our curriculum around. It’s a very fluid curriculum,” he said.

Computer science has become an integral part of engineering as well, and will continue to be a major focus for the academy.

“We’re going to continue pushing computer science skills … we would be doing a disservice to not incorporate that.”

The academy has become a large community over the last nine years, and it has also created its own LinkedIn Alumni network for academy graduates, even four years or more after they’ve graduated from Wall High School and look to enter the workforce.

“We want the value of the program to continue well beyond just four years,” Mr. Leonard said.

To learn more about the Pre-Engineering Academy, visit the district’s website.

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