Notre Dame builds engineers with Project Lead the Way

By Pat Shea, Associate editor

UTICA — Hannah Jacobs, 13, and Sofia Gardinier, 12, eighth grade students at Notre Dame Jr./Sr. High School, are working together to build furniture during class time. Together the girls determine the cost, the quality, the function of the furniture, the design and the best way to manage their time, all on a computer program, “Project Lead the Way”. The program is part of the school’s ongoing initiative to get students ready to face technology challenges in “the real world.”   “It’s a really different way to learn,” stated Jacobs. “It’s about engineering, but it’s also interesting and kinda fun, too.”

The funding for Project Lead the Way came from an Oneida County Partners in Prosperity STEM Education Fund. The funds are used to help schools prepare students in the area of new technology. A requirement for the grant is a program must be ready for immediate implementation. Notre Dame School applied for the STEM grant and received $40,000 to fund Project Lead the Way.

Rick Murcurcio, a mathematics teacher at Notre Dame, teaches the program. “The purpose of the program is to help students develop a passion for careers in engineering. We are the only school
[in the area] other than New Hartford to offer this program,” explained Murcurcio. “The program helps ‘build engineers’ by having students not only design projects, but research projects, determine the costs involved, and build a 3-D computer model of their design. It’s an amazing program and the students really are having fun with it.”

Murcurcio spent two weeks at Rochester Institute of Technology learning the foundation and mechanics of the program before instructing the students. “The program is taught for half the school year but as it grows, it can certainly evolve into a full year program,” stated Murcurcio. “There are elements of this program that are currently being taught in the elementary school and other elements that can be taught all the way through high school. The world is changing with technology and through programs like this, we are preparing our students for the future.”

Presently the program is offered in two courses: one for seventh graders that focuses primarily on robotics and computer design, and the second course for eighth graders which delves into engineering, project planning and management. “The point of both courses is to teach students innovative problem solving skills,” stated Murcurcio. “This program shows them new ways of thinking and how to be creative and the important skill of thinking for themselves.”

During the course, students will actually build various projects and learn how to correct mistakes. “The first project the students work on is a glider. We test the gliders to see which ones fly better and students make changes based on how their particular glider performed. It’s interesting to see the students suddenly figure out what is needed. And through this program students are learning to utilize skills they have learned in previous years. As a math teacher I always hear students say to me, ‘When am I ever going to use this [math] skill in real life?’ With Project Lead the Way, students need to use estimating skills and how to figure out scale. When they are having problems figuring things out I tell them, ‘Remember when you asked me when you’d need those math skills you learned last year? Well today’s the day,’” laughed Murcurcio.

For more information on Notre Dame Jr./Sr. High School and Project Lead the Way, visit www.notredameutica.org.

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