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Engineering Program Points Kids Toward Career Success

(December 13, 2012) The blinds are pulled on the windows overlooking South 4th Street in Armando Dominguez's Project Lead The Way classroom at Escuela Vieau, a bilingual MPS school on National Avenue in Walker's Point. And despite the fact that one wall is papered with a Wave jersey and posters of international soccer stars like Wayne Rooney and Carlos Tevez, the students he's working with are all focused on him.

A compact, rock-solid stocky and personable fellow, Dominguez worked as a veterinarian in Mexico, before meeting his wife and returning with her to Milwaukee and joining the Vieau faculty in 2000. He is a formidable presence in his room, where every sixth through eighth grader in his K3-8 school studies principles of engineering.

Dominguez volunteered to head up the Project Lead The Way program at Vieau about five years ago when MPS paired it with Rockwell Automation -- whose clocktower shines like a beacon above the neighborhood. The company was eager to support the engineering program at the middle school level in the district.

Project Lead The Way is a national program -- MSOE president Hermann Viets is on the board -- that has made big waves across the country and in May grabbed headlines when it was announced that 20 percent of the schools on Newsweek magazine's "America's Best High Schools" list offered PLTW's science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) program.

This year 28 MPS schools have PLTW programs. Seven are high schools and the remainder are middle or K-8 schools (including Golda Meir, which is 3-8, and Westside Academy II, a 4-8 school).

Vieau runs on a quarterly schedule and kids take Project Lead The Way classes every other "semester." The school's all-inclusive approach -- in which every sixth, seventh and eighth grader takes part in PLTW -- is uncommon. But it has made an impact.

School counselor -- and Rockwell liaison -- Melinda Wyant Jansen recalls that just before the program came to her school students were surveyed and most didn't know what an engineer was. Those that did, conjured images of train drivers and the school's maintenance engineer.

"When we started this maybe one kid said they wanted to be an engineer and they really didn't know what it was," she tells me in her first floor office, where Roberto, a quiet fourth grader pretends he's reading a book at a low table. In fact, he's clearly listening to us talk, stealing occasional glances.

"Now we have about 25 to 30 kids out of our class who have said 'I'd like to be an engineer' and an even higher the kids who want to go into some kind of STEM."

But, perhaps even more importantly, says Wyant Jansen, this program that aims to lead kids into careers in engineering is lighting a path out of poverty for the school's roughly 700, mostly Hispanic, kids, most of whom come from the surrounding neighborhood.

"Graduation here is a big deal," says Wyant Jansen, "out of eighth grade. One of the biggest things about kids that are coming from poverty is that you have to show them that there is something else. And PLTW ... opens up a whole new world."

That world is one that is paved with scholarships -- including ones from Rockwell and MSOE, among others -- and leads to high-paying careers in all areas of engineering. And thanks to visits from Rockwell employees and executives, Vieau students understand that PLTW offers them concrete hope, not some abstract idea of the potential for a new life.

It leads them to focus, to think hard about where they want to go to high school and consider seriously what they want to do beyond that.

"It's really changed the way our kids have thought about what they're going to do after high school and where they're going to go," says Wyant Jansen.

"It's just about opportunity. If our kids continue in this program there are scholarships there for them when they finish high school. It's a really big deal. We start talking to these kids about all of that in fifth grade. So that whole idea of getting them ready in middle school to start thinking about those things is really important."

He pushes, pushes, pushes and it's amazing the results he gets

On the day I visit, Francisco Benitez's 25 sixth graders are a couple weeks into their nine-step Gateway to Technology project. Each pair of students' task is to design a piece of furniture -- a chair, a table or a hobby organizer.

Dominguez coaxes the kids into talking about the results of their brainstorming sessions, which they do on paper. That way, they're not tempted to borrow ideas they found online.

"It's OK to look," he tells them when they move on to the next step in the process -- research. "You can look into other stuff to get ideas. It is not OK to copy what you find."

He reminds them of the many things they need to consider when working on their designs; things like materials, functionality and consumer tastes. Then he lets them log on and begin trying to answer the questions they need to move forward.

He knows that in these 90-minute, five-days-a-week classes, the kids' minds can wander and they can get bored, so he likes the idea of explaining a task, giving them time to work on it, then talking about the next step and so on.

"I've seen growth in them," he says. "The eighth graders are something to admire. They accomplish a lot, they stay on task, thet finish their work."

Dominguez makes it look easy, but he says he works hard to stay up on the varied subjects the Project Lead the Way program encompasses. He stays in touch with other PLTW teachers and they share ideas. And he reads. A lot.

"I have to know the curriculum up and down, because I have to teach everything. I have to look for what is new," he says, "because if I come and I try to teach the subject and some of the students have a great interest, they will continue. My intention is someday they'll know more than I do but if that kid comes to my classroom today I want to be prepared. I don't want to be just, 'oh, I'll give you the answer later.' The kids (would) get discouraged."

That hard work is bolstered by a healthy respect from his students, says Wyant Jansen.

"He's got a good rapport. We're very lucky to have him. He's a master teacher. These are the standards and he doesn't not shift. He's very tough. He pushes, pushes, pushes and it's amazing the results he gets. And they like it. He runs it like a company -- they have to interview -- which is a very good experience for them. Kids that have gone away have said, 'I was ready for high school (because of him)'."

Soon Dominguez will get a new Project Lead The Way lab in the attic of the older of the two connected buildings that comprise Escuela Vieau. The $500,000 renovation is being paid for with federal stimulus money.

Let's hear it for the girls

While some kids are fidgety and others look a little sleepy, no one talks while Dominguez is talking and no one misbehaves. Their eyes follow him as he moves around the room discussing the task at hand.

I notice that many of the girls in the room look most interested. And, later, Wyant Jansen tells me I'm correct. PLTW has had an especially profound effect on the girls at the school.

"Our girls were so shy in science," she says. "The data shows we now have more girls that are interested in STEM. It is really important for them. A lot of times our girls outshine the boys. When they do get together on a team and they go for something, wow they can really shine."