Alex, holding the LCD module while James was using the dial calipers to measure its height to enter in to CAD software.

Alex, holding the LCD module while James uses dial calipers to measure its height for entry into CAD software.

When we received an email from three students at Mountlake Terrace High School requesting mentoring assistance on a 9-month capstone electronic engineering project, I was dumbfounded—Washington high schools teach engineering?  Why didn’t we know about this at Stilwell Baker? In the media, politicians and educators in the United States continually lament that America is falling behind in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) education, and they’re anxious that we might lose our long standing position as a country of engineering innovators and scientific leaders. However, no one bothered to mention successful high school engineering programs in an NPR Science Friday segment last month when guests from MIT, the National Academy of Engineering, and others discussed the subject ad nauseam.

It took Mountlake Terrace High School engineering instructor, Craig DeVine, to introduce me to Project Lead the Way (PLTW), a program in which middle and high school students prepare for the challenge of a four year college engineering program. I wonder how many people in our industry are aware of this remarkable program, and how easy it is for engineering companies to contribute to STEM education.

After receiving the students’ request for an engineering mentor, Stilwell Baker engineer, David C., didn’t hesitate.

From Alex: All of our electronics jammed into the lunchbox for storage. In the future, they will be nicely integrated into the top half of the lunchbox.

From Alex: All of our electronics jammed into the lunchbox for storage. In the future, they will be nicely integrated into the top half of the lunchbox.

He quickly stepped up to help Alex, Laura, and James with their project. Since then, David has maintained a correspondence with the students, and everyone at Stilwell Baker is interested in how well their new product will work. The student team was responsible for the project from conception to prototype: in this case, solving the problem of unsafe lunchbox temperatures by creating a battery-powered, thermally-controlled lunchbox.

Teensy development board controlling LCD and 3 transistors

Teensy development board controlling LCD and 3 transistors

Alex, Laura, and James researched the problem and the market, developed conceptual solutions, prioritized a number of design specs, and used a decision matrix to determine the preferred product solution. They then designed the analog and digital hardware, including a small micro-controller, display, temperature sensors, and thermoelectric cooling modules. With periodic emails between David and the students, the scholars have been able to explore the challenges of development and get professional feedback. The students are currently building and testing their design. Their initiative, creativity, and communication skills are impressive and a testament to their experience with PLTW.

This week, seniors James, Laura, and Alex are racing toward their May deadline, and David is assisting them with power supply issues on the lunch box. The students will be giving us an update when they complete their project, so we’ll present a detailed summary of the outcome and the challenges the students faced during the year in Part II: Project Lead the Way and STEM education in action.

Laura-soldering the LCD backlight

Laura-soldering the LCD back light

Next fall, the Stilwell Baker team will find a local school and continue our involvement with Project Lead the Way, and we challenge other engineering firms to do the same.  If you are interested in learning more about student outcomes from PLTW, take a look at the statistics. For the locations of schools in your area, visit the PLTW School Locator.

Project Lead the Way (PLTW) began in 1986 as the brainchild of Richard Blais, technology chair of the Shenendehowa Central School District in Upstate New York. Blais designed a rigorous STEM curriculum for the district that included an interactive, project- based component as a way to inspire high school students to study engineering. Through his successful efforts and a partnership with Richard Liebich of the Charitable Leadership Foundation, PLTW was founded in 1997. PLTW describes the program very well in their lively video, Team PLTW.