Louisiana's top school board Tuesday took action that will allow 200 students in the Baton Rouge area – and soon public school students statewide – to take pre-engineering classes in high school.
The new offerings includes eight science, technology, engineering and math classes, called STEM, and two of the courses will allow students to earn both high school and course credit at LSU and other colleges.
The classes are not for those looking for an easy A.
They include Intro to Computational Thinking for STEM, Data Manipulation and Analysis and Engineering Design & Development. The classes will also offer a new dimension to the state's three-year-old Jump Start program, which allows juniors and seniors to earn national industry credentials in welding, car repairs and other areas.
"Historically the career and technical curriculum has been very divided from the academic, college preparatory curriculum," state Superintendent of Education John White said after the meeting.
"Now you have a career pathway that feeds directly into the four-year university," White said.
The new rules were approved by a committee of the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education. Final approval is expected when the board meets Wednesday.
Under the plan, students would take two engineering-related classes per grade in grades 9-12. Those classes cover introduction to engineering, including interaction with industry professionals; robotics, including building robots for competition and classroom projects; and engineering economy, where students learn how to plan engineering projects.
Students will analyze case studies, do 3-D modeling and use games to illustrate engineering problem solving.
The classes, already available at Lee Magnet High School, will be offered to 200 freshmen in the Baton Rouge area for the 2017-18 school year, including McKinley Senior High School and Central High School; STEM Academy in Pointe Coupee Parish and West Feliciana High School in St. Francisville.
They will serve as pilots before the classes are launched statewide. Exactly when that will happen is unclear.
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The blueprint stems in part from work done by Nan McCann, principal at heavily redesigned Lee High in Baton Rouge.
McCann, who addressed BESE, said afterwards that when the overhauled, magnet Lee High School was being planned she worked with Frank Neubrander, director of the LSU Gordon A. Cain Center for STEM Literacy and Craig Harvey, associate dean of academic affairs at the LSU College of Engineering, on how to bring engineering classes to Lee.
She said that, as talks progressed, officials realized they could produce a four-year program with a Jump Start certification, which can also bolster annual school letter grades.
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"Jump Start is not something a magnet would usually do," McCann said. "This is a more rigorous program with dual enrollment where we could do the Jump Start certification."
Said White to BESE, "It is highly, highly rigorous coursework."
Harvey told BESE that, by middle school, students usually know whether they want to pursue a technical field. "Whether a student decides to go to college or straight to a career, the skills offered in the engineering pathway are more in demand today than ever before," he said in a statement.
"These courses do not replace their basic math and sciences," Harvey said. "Instead, these courses help a student, for example, understand why algebra and geometry are important to designing a robot."
Careers in STEM are among the fastest growing in the nation, and the pre-engineering classes also advance the state's push to focus more attention in those four areas.
White said LSU is essentially reinventing the high school math and science curriculum toward a "very contemporary, applied, job relevant vision of math and science."
"Now you will have kids studying for a career, but they are also studying to go to a university at the same time," he said.
White said BESE and the state Board of Regents will be asked if some of the courses can replace the current math requirements for high school diplomas and TOPS, the college scholarship for students who meet the academic requirements.
"That is what both boards will have to consider in December," he said.
A total of 21 teachers are set to teach the courses for the upcoming school year.
Those teachers will also finish what amounts to 18 credit hours of graduate level classes over two consecutive summers at LSU, free of charge, to enhance their skills.