The Derby school district is leading the Wichita area in providing state-of-the-art engineering classes in middle and high schools, and it will lead the nation by being the first to offer the engineering classes at an elementary school.
The district rolled out Project Lead the Way, a national program that provides engineering curriculum, at three of its schools this year.
Next year, one of its elementary schools will be the pilot program for a primary aerospace engineering lesson plan designed by Project Lead the Way.
By offering the engineering classes, Derby school leaders said they hope to spark students' interest in math and science by providing hands-on and computer-based activities.
"Half didn't even know what engineering was," said Christopher Shetlar, who teaches a high school engineering course. "As things get going, they like it a little more."
Kristin Wilcox's sixth-grade class seemed eerily quiet for a group of 20 students left to work independently on computers.
They were engrossed in building a peg board in a computer-assisted design program. When students struggled, they would quietly ask Wilcox — or a classmate — for help.
Wilcox's six sixth-grade design and modeling classes are full.
"Every class is fun," said Wilcox.
Derby sixth-grader Hannah Steinert said she took the engineering class because she wants to follow in the footsteps of her father, who is an aviation engineer.
"I like experimenting and finding the answer — seeing if there's more than one right answer," said Hannah, who was sketching the mallet she would design on the computer.
Across the street at Derby Middle School, seventh-grader Katelyn Minks said designing the peg board was complicated. She finished it in two weeks. Not bad for a student who got there by a scheduling accident.
"At first I didn't know I was in the class," Katelyn said. "Once we started to build things, I started to like it."
Her teachers told her she was a talented designer, and she said she might take more engineering classes.
"Math takes you places," Katelyn said.
Updating the district's career-technical education program to the pre-engineering program was a large investment of money and dedication.
District officials started planning to revamp its vocational program about two years ago to meet changing state technical education standards and serve more students, said Kendal Warkentine, career and technical education coordinator.
"Even though they might not go on to be engineers, it reinforces basic math skills," he said. "They're shown a different way to apply math concepts."
Students can't enroll in the engineering courses if they are taking remedial math or reading classes.
Derby received a $100,000 grant this spring from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation to establish the Project Lead the Way curriculum in its schools. It should receive money for another three years, said Gaylord Dold, the district's grant coordinator.
Another $15,000 from a Wichita State University grant helped the district train five teachers in a two-week session over the summer.
Derby had to pay for the renovation of classrooms, and school principals had to figure out how to devote teachers to the engineering classes.
The two middle school teachers were already devoted to technology classes, as was one of the high school teachers. The other high school teacher gave up some of her geometry classes to teach a few periods of engineering.
Classrooms were gutted to make room for more computers and project space. Some administrators designed the rooms themselves.
Ideal place to launch
Derby students have responded to recruiting efforts. Almost 700 are enrolled in one of the Project Lead the Way classes, Dold said.
Derby high school sophomore Kelly Mahon saw a video about the engineering class and thought "it looked cool."
"We do stuff on the computer I didn't think we'd go into so much," she said while coloring a wooden cube with markers to help her conceptualize her design project.
Derby was an ideal place to launch a districtwide program because of its size of about 6,500 students, Dold said. With one sixth-grade center, one middle and one high school, officials could ensure all students learned the same lessons, and teachers could anticipate where they should be in the course.
The size definitely helped in the districtwide roll out, said Anne Corriston, local program director for the Knight Foundation, which provided the start-up money.
"It's a great lesson for other districts that size can mobilize," she said.
Wichita has been implementing Project Lead the Way curriculum in its classrooms for the past few years. But it adds a few courses at a few schools at a time versus a cohesive program from grades 6 to 12.
Wichita and Derby are the only districts in Sedgwick County that have received Knight Foundation grants for the pre-engineering courses.
School leaders said they think they can expand and maintain the program in lean budget years, although it might take some sacrifice, said Tim Hamblin, assistant principal at Derby High.
"In a budget crisis, if a teacher goes, an area is not being filled," he said. "It is a concern for the future."
Just a start
This is just the beginning, Derby officials said.
Wineteer Elementary School teachers are starting training to be the first to teach Project Lead the Way's aerospace engineering lessons in grades three to five.
Derby received a $318,000 grant from the Department of Defense to pay for it for three years. About 70 percent of the students at Wineteer have parents who work at McConnell Air Force Base.
Next year, the high school will add the next class in the curriculum, and the middle school will expand its course options, including electrical engineering and flight.
As the program grows, Derby leaders said they plan to draw support from engineers in the surrounding aircraft industries in the form of mentors and guest speakers for students.
"With the economy the way it is and competitiveness with jobs, it connects them with the workplace," said Rod Coykendal, principal at Derby Middle School. "It's heavy on real-life learning."
For sixth-grader Hannah, the class has changed her perspective on little things — like hitting pegs into a board.
"It makes you look at it differently," Hannah said. "It took a long time to make — a lot of trial and fail."