School tries to engineer kids’ success

Sometimes in the evening, long after her last class of the day, Patricia Medina has an uncommon urge. She wants to go back to school.

“I want to come at night and just, like, make something,” said Patricia, a sophomore at University High School in West Los Angeles.

What could reduce an otherwise bright, engaging student to dreams of breaking and entering? In Patricia’s case, it’s the lure of engineering -- the chance to build a robot or design a bridge, to create something that bears no resemblance to the typical high school assignment.

There are plenty of others like Patricia at Uni High’s new Academy of Engineering, one of 13 such academies opened in the United States last fall under a national grant program. The network, which will expand to 110 schools nationally by 2012, is intended to draw more women, blacks and Latinos into engineering and generally bump up the number of American engineers.

At Uni, a school that is struggling to regain its reputation as a center of excellence, the academy is also seen as a way of motivating students.


“You’re looking for students who have kind of been passed over, you’re looking for a learning modality that’s hands-on and project-based,” said Max Rock, the head of the academy. “I think there’s a pretty equal group of guys and girls who learn that way -- they don’t really learn something unless they get their hands on it.”

The premise behind the program is that the U.S. is falling behind in math and science education and needs to act quickly or face a loss of technological preeminence.

“There’s a problem with the pipeline,” said Jon Reinhard, who oversees the engineering academies for the National Academy Foundation, one of three organizations collaborating on the program. “We don’t have enough kids with the right background to fill the seats in the engineering programs in college.”

That concerns industry leaders. The four biggest funders of the engineering academy program are the Gates Foundation, Motorola, Verizon and Xerox; altogether, some 40 tech-oriented companies are providing support. Engineers “are going to be in critically short supply as the baby boom generation continues to age and retires,” said Tim McAward, vice president of Kelly Engineering Resources, a temporary placement agency that provides financial and mentoring support to the academies.

There is debate in academic circles about whether there really is a current or pending shortage of engineers (and, if so, whether it’s limited to certain branches, such as civil engineering). But there is little disagreement about the dearth of women and “underrepresented minorities,” a phrase that, in this case, can be translated as non-whites who are not Asian American.

Women accounted for 18% of engineering bachelor’s degrees in the United States in 2006-07, according to the American Society for Engineering Education. African Americans and Latinos of both sexes accounted for a total of 11%, far below their proportion of the population.

Uni High -- 61% Latino, 17% African American and 48.5% female -- was a pretty good place to start boosting the numbers.

It hasn’t been easy, though, as Rock can testify.

Quick-witted, with a warm smile and a shaved head, Rock can relate to his students because as a kid, he said, “I was headed toward what my parents called ‘Lawn Mower Repair School’ ” until he found engineering. He majored in it in college and worked as a civil engineer. He was eventually drawn to teaching -- “This education thing is too intoxicating,” he said -- and thrives in the classroom. But like many teachers, he has found himself sometimes beating his head against the system.

On top of their teaching, he and other staffers were given a year to plan the academy, with assistance from the National Academy Foundation and training from Project Lead the Way, another sponsoring partner. Uni offered students an engineering class last spring and teachers met every day during a common planning period. The idea was to launch the full academy in the fall of 2008 with about 100 freshmen, while continuing to offer engineering courses to the students who began last spring.

But in March of that year, Uni got a new principal, Eric Davidson. He had his hands full, without much time to launch a new academy. When he planned the fall curriculum, he was unable to fit the engineering classes, or a common conference period for academy staff, into the school’s block schedule. Although students had been selected, there would be no engineering in the fall.

“We really got into a jam,” Rock said. “I think we underestimated the culture shift between a comprehensive high school structure and an academy structure.”

By the fall, Davidson was able to focus on the academy, and he made sure that classes were in place for the spring. Things seemed to be working smoothly this spring -- until several of the academy’s dynamic young teachers received preliminary layoff notices.

Rock was crestfallen. Speaking of one teacher, Jeff Ricards, he said, “We’ve spent six grand per class to train him! It’s really expensive, and he’s really valuable.”

Eventually, layoff notices were revoked for math and science teachers. And grant funding will ensure that the academy can train more teachers this summer than it needs, providing a cushion in case of future layoffs. The spring classes seemed to go well, and students were excited by the hands-on projects.

“There’s always a different project you have to do, something new to think about,” Patricia Medina said, taking a break from building a miniature conveyor belt for a robotics project in Ricards’ class. “It keeps your brain from falling asleep.”

Asked if engineering was more interesting than other classes, Edward Hong seemed momentarily at a loss for words. “You have no idea,” he finally said.

The academy has recruited a class of 60 boys and 23 girls for the fall, with some seats still open as of mid-May. Rock desperately wants more girls but said, “You’re trying to fight a huge cultural bias, and I’m not sure we know how to do that.”

Tricia Vargas, a senior who took one of the inaugural engineering classes last year, said her mom was initially opposed because, in her mind, engineers were the guys looking for work outside Home Depot. Tricia eventually persuaded her that engineering could be a path to success. “Being a girl and being a Latina,” she said, “there’s no other opportunity like this in one’s life.”