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updated: 1/14/2014 4:22 PM

Engineering course offerings expanding in Dist. 204

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Basic engineering classes will become part of the middle school and high school curriculum next year for more students in Indian Prairie Unit District 204, as the district looks to expand a program of engineering-related offerings.

Nearly 3,500 middle school and high school students already are taking engineering courses through Project Lead The Way, a nationwide pre-engineering curriculum the district has been phasing in since 2011.

The rollout of engineering classes is set to continue in the fall, as next year's course offerings will include an eighth-grade energy and environment class and a high school capstone class in engineering design and development, said Jill Hlavacek, director of encore curriculum.

Those offerings will be on top of the two middle school and four high school classes offered this year to teach skills such as modeling, automation robotics, digital electronics, civil engineering and architecture.

"This is a national program developed to foster student interest in STEM," Hlavacek said about Project Lead The Way. "The approach is hands-on."

Instead of listening to a lecture about wiring and circuitry, for example, students solve real-life problems and figure out how circuits work, Hlavacek said. Students have opportunities for field trips, job shadows and internships, and the courses prepare them to take Advanced Placement tests for college credit.

After a recent presentation on high school electives, board member Michael Raczak said he was "completely blown away" by the opportunities Project Lead The Way classes offer students. He encouraged parents not to steer children toward more traditional courses without consideration of the skills students can learn through an early focus on engineering.

"Project Lead The Way is probably the most forward-thinking curriculum in the school as it exists now," Raczak said. "It reinforces STEM skills, it reinforces 21st century learning, it's based on AP (Advanced Placement) concepts, and it prepares kids for careers and college. These are not throwaway classes."

Kathy Duncan, chief academic officer for the district, which teaches students from parts of Naperville, Aurora, Bolingbrook and Plainfield, said the cost of Project Lead The Way is rolled into the district's curriculum budget and not tracked separately. But for each teacher who instructs a class in the program, there is a startup cost of $8,000 for a 10-day training over the summer, usually taught by the University of Illinois.

As the district plans to expand Project Lead The Way next year, educators also are likely to move forward with online classes through a consortium of West suburban districts. Board member Cathy Piehl said she hopes the availability of online classes might open up time during the school day for more students to take engineering courses.

"We want kids to have experiences so they know what is out there in terms of what these careers look like," Piehl said. "These kids know what engineering is and that is so exciting."

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