District 211 Engineering Program Prepares Future Generation to Lead the Way

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Vivian Liu

Ever since she could remember, Palatine High School Senior Vivian Liu wanted to learn more about engineering. Her father, an electrical engineer, would come home and continue working on complex projects as she watched. Once she was old enough, he started to teach her about his work and by her sophomore year of high school, Vivian found herself delving into coursework that fulfilled her personal interests in engineering.

The Engineering program In High School District 211 encourages students like Vivian, as well as students who have no previous exposure to the subject, to challenge themselves to solve real-world projects that engineers face each day. Engineering is part of the Applied Technology curriculum and falls within Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics, or commonly referred to as “STEM” courses. Courses within STEM include interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary approaches to learning and the curriculum prepares students for college majors and careers within engineering.

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Vivian looks at models from previous “battle bots,” which are robots that fight against each other to be the last robot standing. Her group is constructing their own robot that they will use in competition against area schools later in the school year.

Within Engineering is Project Lead the Way (PLTW), which is a non-profit organization that provides curriculum in computer science, engineering, and biomedical science. Students have the opportunity to take varying levels of up to six different courses, which includes two introductory classes and four upper level classes. The courses cover various topics, such as Principals of Engineering, Digital Electronics, and Civil Engineering, among others.

However, what is unique about District 211’s Engineering program is the ability to mix the PLTW curriculum with different areas of study, particularly within Applied Technology. Many classes within engineering focus on having students apply their knowledge to real-world challenges, as well as how to work on collaborative projects, communicate effectively, and think critically. For Vivian, aspects of engineering have opened her eyes to the possibility of one day starting her own tech company.

“During my first year, we didn’t do that many extensive projects, but we learned how to apply engineering to everyday things, such as how engineering works in your daily life,” Vivian said. “In Principals of Engineering we went more in depth and then we got to learn about different types of engineering, including materials engineering, civil engineering, and how the basic process of that works. Our teachers are great and know how to make learning very fun.”

 

Finding a Fit in the Engineering Field

 

Students taking courses within Advanced Manufacturing Technology, Carpentry/Building Construction, Automotives, Computer Aided Design, and Electronics, also have taken engineering classes to help them explore career choice options. As of 2016, there are over 2.5 million total jobs in the United States within engineering. Courses offered by District 211 provide a foundation for many top careers in engineering, including civil engineering, mechanical engineering, and electrical engineering.

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Vivian discusses a motor with Palatine High School Applied Technology Teacher Alex Larson.

“As teachers, we better understand the outlook and demand for specific engineering areas and we have modified what we do to better prepare our students to be college and career ready,” said Alex Larson, Applied Technology teacher at Palatine High School. “That includes our facilities and how we approach the learning process in different ways.”

Engineering coursework offered through District 211 also is current with what colleges and universities teach, providing students with an easier transition to collegiate work. In PLTW courses, students are required to take an exam that could earn them college credit, thus directly impacting the cost of college tuition. Shayna Adelman, Applied Technology teacher at Conant High School, was an engineer before moving into the teaching profession. She said that students are well prepared for the coursework should they choose to major in engineering.

Students learn to use manufacturing machines to construct their own parts for projects they build.

Students learn to use manufacturing machines to construct their own parts for projects they build.

“While not at the same level, the content that we cover in the first two introductory courses here is essentially all the classes I took freshman and sophomore year of college,” Adelman said. “Students will go into engineering after high school prepared.”

To help students hone in on their interests, District 211 encourages them to explore the career clusters website where they can learn about various college majors, jobs, and industry certifications available to them within a subject. While this is not specific to Engineering and Applied Technology, students can take an assessment that suggests potential careers to them based on their personality. Though many students may continue to change their minds about their career or college major selections, it is valuable for students to explore multiple areas while still in high school to assist in decisions about where their skills and passions exist. Students may find they are interested in becoming different types of engineers, including chemical engineers, industrial engineers, or civil engineers.

“Engineering is not only for future engineers,” Adelman said. “A student might take these classes and go into manufacturing. They might go into business or sales or something along the technology spectrum. While what we teach is a lot of engineering concepts, it also covers skills students can bring into any career.”

 

Prepare For the Future Through Community Connections

 

Hawks Engineering Team poses with "Seahawk," the ROV they built for competition in 2015. (Right to left) Grace Wilkins, Laura Turf, Miraj Shah, Thomas Schaefer, and Dillon Vadgama.

Hawks Engineering Team poses with “Seahawk,” the ROV they built for competition in 2015. (Right to left) Grace Wilkins, Laura Turf, Miraj Shah, Thomas Schaefer, and Dillon Vadgama.

High School District 211 works hard to not only provide innovative curriculum to students, but also foster connections with the community. Students have opportunities to earn internships at local businesses, as well as pursue 11 different industry certifications, including civil technician, electronics technician, and mechanical technician.

“Kids earn internships through manufacturing and engineering programs,” Larson said. “There is a large number of students who have earned internships with companies doing work as seniors going into their first year of college. Getting kids that real-world experience is a thing we are very proud of.”

This is an example of a hovercraft, constructed by Palatine High School students, that was used in competition in partnership with Northrup Grumman.

This is an example of a hovercraft, constructed by Palatine High School students, that was used in competition in partnership with Northrup Grumman.

Opportunities to work with those same companies are available for students outside of the classroom through extracurricular clubs. Extracurricular clubs available at all District 211 schools allow students to take what they have learned and apply it to an extensive project within the club. District 211 Engineering extracurriculars include: CAD Drafting Club; Electronics Club; Math Team; Scholastic Bowl; Science Bowl; Science Club; Tech Crew/Auditorium Director.

Conant High School students compete in a competition to create a super-mileage, efficient car.

Conant High School students compete in a competition to create a super-mileage, efficient car.

Real-world experience and project-based learning is a huge component of various engineering clubs. Students in Robotics Club at Palatine High School have worked on constructing a hovercraft in partnership with Palatine-based Northrup Grumman. Students in the Engineering Club at Conant High School work on a automobile project each year where they create a super-mileage car that is made to go as far as possible on one gallon of gas. Each project focuses on a relevant issue within society, whether that is evolving technology or exploring sustainability. Additionally, these groups provide another opportunity for students to learn soft-skills that will help them in college and as professionals in the future. Students practice time management, collaboration with others, critical thinking, and more.

“The collaborative environment that we teach within engineering classes and clubs is critical for them to succeed in college,” Larson said. “When students have people on their teams who have not learned skills like this, it is a detriment to their success and progress. It may be a soft skill, but it is a component that students value.”

 

Preparing Before Freshman Year

 

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GEMS participants work on an experiment during the event.

District 211 works with area school districts to provide opportunities for students before they reach high school. Students in eighth grade have the opportunity to participate in the Project Lead the Way Summer Engineering Academy before their freshman year. At the recommendation from middle school teachers, these students can jumpstart their path within the engineering field and help prepare them for rigorous coursework in high school. Fifth and sixth grade girls also are introduced to engineering and other STEM careers through an event called Girls in Engineering, Math, and Science, or GEMS. At the spring event, female students can participate in various experiments and meet female professionals within the field. Studies have shown that exposing girls to these fields early increases the chance of them pursuing the coursework later on, despite any challenges they may face.

 

Shaping The Next Generation

 

While technology continues to evolve, so does the curriculum taught within the engineering field. Adelman said that in the past, District 211 might not have taught a class such as Digital Electronics because at the time, it would have only been electronics and focused on simply putting things together and making it work. However, electronics are basically mini computers, and students need to learn how to navigate technology that is always changing and improving. Additionally, she said a lot of students are interested in the biomedical arena of engineering.

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In the engineering program, students gain skills, including working on CAD software, that help them bring project ideas to fruition.

“Our class at Conant High School focuses on environmental sustainability,” Adelman said. “We talk about providing enough clean drinking water to communities, renewable fuels, or genetically modifying food to ensure food sustainability and availability. These things are so relevant and are important right now.”

Exploring real-world scenarios within biomedical fields or sustainability is helping students gain experience to help them lead the world someday. Teachers throughout the District have stated that alumni regularly comment on the preparation and head start they gained while in the District 211 engineering program.

“I’ve had former students who have said their first and second year of college was much easier because they had the experience here,” Larson said. “By the time students graduate, they feel prepared, they know what to do, and know what to expect.”