Program seeks millions to get kids into science

An unprecedented effort is under way among aircraft companies, the Kansas Legislature and Wichita State University to expand the teaching of pre-engineering and other science courses in Wichita public schools -- and to build a bigger pipeline of kids seeking engineering and skilled-labor jobs.

They hope to start next fall, training and inspiring a new generation of engineers. They plan to start at Mueller Elementary School, Coleman Middle School and Northeast Magnet High School, later working in multiple schools.

WSU has applied for a $2 million grant, to be voted on next Sunday by the Knight Foundation's national board, to greatly expand pre-engineering courses in Wichita public schools.

The university applied because state leaders are worried that some of Kansas' biggest companies might soon leave or outsource work because they can't find engineers in Wichita.

"Everyone knows the national economy isn't doing well, and that if we don't solve some of the problems here, we could lose what we have," said Pete Gustaf, president of Wichita Area Technical College, who has been included in the planning.

Aircraft companies need to fill 400 to 500 additional engineering jobs and thousands of skilled-labor jobs, said Zulma Toro-Ramos, dean of the College of Engineering at WSU. Company executives told her that schools need to better prepare students for those jobs.

Toro-Ramos is coordinating an effort to expand Project Lead the Way, a program already in place in Wichita schools that offer pre-engineering courses on topics such as engineering design, computer integrated manufacturing, and civil engineering and architecture.

Toro-Ramos wants to get into multiple schools in Wichita, then expand to Derby and other school districts.

Some students recruited for the program might not ultimately go into engineering but would be well prepared to apply for the technical education training WATC offers.

"The point of all this is not only to develop engineers but to maintain the standard of living here in Wichita," Toro-Ramos said. "You maintain the standard of living when you maintain the industry here, and the work force."

There is already a $260,000 grant in place from the U.S. Department of Labor, and a proposal for another $100,000 from the National Science Foundation, all to be used for training and equipment to expand the program.

The new effort will go forward in some way even if WSU doesn't get the Knight grant, Toro-Ramos said. She and WSU's education college plan to bring high school students to campus to work with faculty in the research labs and to train more K-12 teachers to prepare children for careers in technology and engineering.

A statewide problem

Kansas Senate President Stephen Morris said he and other legislators are concerned about what might happen if Wichita's aircraft companies, or engineer-reliant Kansas City-area companies like Black & Veatch, Garmin and Burns & McDonnell, leave Kansas or outsource.

Those companies are at least 1,500 engineers short, said Morris, R-Hugoton. "Part of the reason our state is not growing as fast as other states is because of this shortage," Morris said.

The shortage has lasted for years, but took on urgency when the national economy weakened with the subprime mortgage crisis, said Reggie Robinson, president and chief executive of the Kansas Board of Regents.

He's been pressing universities to do much more to help K-12 schools address the problem. In recent months, engineering school deans including Toro-Ramos and the deans at Kansas State University and the University of Kansas made plans to aggressively recruit, train and mentor youngsters in public schools.

"The shortage is so severe that when I show up at career fairs and talk to company representatives I become almost uncomfortable," said Stuart Bell, KU's dean of engineering. "They are so desperate for engineers. We're not meeting their needs."

Toro-Ramos said WSU hopes to establish new or enhanced engineering-based science centers in many schools, starting with Mueller, Coleman and Northeast.

There would be five courses taught at each school; WSU would help train teachers and help find money for equipment. The new classes would be in addition to Project Lead the Way programs at West and Northwest high schools and would expand the program at Northeast.

Help from WATC

When Morris started talking with the engineering deans, he said he asked them to find whatever way they could to help public schools and to collaborate with technical schools like Wichita Area Technical College.

Gustaf agreed to help.

Technical education, whether for engineering or skilled labor, is expensive. Equipment costs a lot because technological improvements make it obsolete in two to three years.

Wichita public schools haven't had the resources to keep up. But WATC could help by allowing schoolchildren to use its state-of-the-art training equipment once its new $54 million training center opens near Jabara Airport in 2010.

Just months ago, Gustaf was saying in The Eagle and in speeches that the public schools seemed unable or unwilling to adapt to how work force needs have tilted toward skilled labor.

And the public schools were saying that technical education was a good idea, but that they had no money to develop it further.

Wichita State, at least publicly, didn't seem to be saying much, though it had collaborated with public schools for three years on Project Lead the Way at West.

A prestige issue

The engineer shortage is a national problem, Toro-Ramos said. Not nearly enough young Americans want to become engineers.

Engineering in this country is not considered a prestige job like law, she said.

"Our contribution to society is not clear. Everything engineers do is for the betterment of humanity," Toro-Ramos said.

"We design airplanes that don't crash, bridges and buildings that don't fall down, we design reliable cars, cell phones and computers that make work easier and more dependable. Even the chair you are sitting in was designed by an engineer."

Of the 1,100 undergraduates at WSU seeking a bachelor's degree in engineering, Toro-Ramos said, 25 percent are foreign-born. Of the 600 graduate students seeking an engineering degree at WSU, 75 percent are foreign-born, mostly from India, China and Malaysia.

Jill Docking, a Wichita stockbroker and member of the Board of Regents, attended the WSU engineering school graduation last spring, and was startled to see how many students came from Asia. She knew American kids seemed reluctant to become engineers. Here was the evidence.

"Where are all these graduates going?" she remembered asking Toro-Ramos.

Home, Toro-Ramos said. Outside the U.S.

Help from industry

Private industry needs to help schools, Morris said, by providing money for everything from training to buildings.

He wants to boost business' ability to make money, "but because of the current economic picture, the state can't do it all," he said.

The help would be welcome, school district leaders said.

The district needs a lot of help, but it has never been unwilling to provide technical education, said Jim Means, the Wichita district's director of secondary career and technical education.

Last year, the district taught 9,000 of its 12,000 high school students at least one course in secondary career or technical education, he said.

Expanding has always been limited by resources, he said.

"People may have finally concluded that it's in their interests to help us," said school board member Connie Dietz. "Guess where most of the new aircraft workers are going to come from? From Wichita schools."

"This effort has huge potential," Means said. "But it's very expensive. If WSU gets that Knight grant, that will be huge."

At West High on Thursday, Jim Pugh taught a Project Lead the Way pre-engineering class, showing 11 students how to use a digital multimeter, which measures current in a circuit. The students appeared upbeat and alert. When asked how many wanted to be engineers, all 11 raised their hands.

"We like challenges," said Khalfani Issa, a junior.

"This isn't hard to learn when you like what you are learning," said Layton Butler, also a junior.

It will lead to great jobs with good pay, he said.

He knows about jobs with low pay, he said -- he earns $6.55 an hour working at McDonald's.