James Tansey knew at a young age he wanted to follow his father into engineering. When he began researching available classes to take in high school, he was amazed when his path led him to Lorain County’s Joint Vocational School.

The days of JVS solely focusing on welding, plumbing and similar blue-collar jobs are long over. While those programs continue to flourish, JVS is evolving. Its new Project Lead the Way initiative illustrates the white-collar, technical approach JVS is taking to education.

PLTW is a national program that focuses on the STEM subjects — science, technology, engineering and mathematics. It uses hands-on classroom experience to explore, design, create and problem solve in real-world situations. It has been part of JVS’ curriculum for the last three years and the results are already evident. Some students who have participated in the program here have completed internships at NASA and worked with local companies on research and development projects.

“I didn’t know what kind of engineering I wanted to do, I just knew I wanted to take some classes,” says Tansey. “The only place I could really do it was JVS. You get all the high school academics and hands-on engineering courses, too.”

JVS is successfully repositioning itself in a technology-driven world, and programs like PLTW are one way it’s doing that. Due to the high costs needed to operate the program and the locations of the participating schools, the JVS has partnered with Lorain County Community College to ensure nearly every student in Lorain County has the opportunity to participate. Currently 12 of the 13 school districts served by the JVS are offering PLTW to their students.

The hope is students across the county who perhaps never considered engineering as a career will do so now because of the free opportunities in front of them. Since the JVS is a public school district and supported by tax dollars, parents don’t pay anything out of pocket for tuition.

“This program allows students to see if they like engineering before their parents sink a lot of money into college engineering programs that they might not like,” PLTW program supervisor Jerry Pavlik says. “Sometimes it’s good to know what you don’t like so you can start crossing things off the list.”

PLTW begins during the sophomore year with an Introduction to Engineering class that students take at their regular high schools but is taught by a PLTW trained instructor. To date, the JVS has received more $300,000 in grants from local business and community partners, which it has used to equip the participating schools and LCCC with computer labs to run the sophisticated engineering software.

Upon completion of the introductory course, students can elect to continue the PLTW program — although the introductory class can also be taken by upperclassmen. A student isn’t eliminated from the program simply because he or she failed to take the introductory class as a sophomore.

Students in districts such as Firelands, Amherst, Keystone, Wellington, Oberlin and Elyria attend the engineering classes at JVS. Students in the Avon, Avon Lake, North Ridgeville, Clearview and Brookside districts attend the program at the college, but it is still taught by JVS instructors. All instructors must complete a rigorous two-week training course for each PLTW course they teach.

The classes count toward college credit, and Pavlik says if all opportunities are maximized, it’s possible for a student to walk out of high school with an associate’s degree as well, saving thousands of dollars and multiple years in college.

“If a student wants to do it, the opportunities are endless,” says Pavlik. “It’s not for every student. There’s a maturity factor involved.”

Tansey graduated from Amherst High School with seven college credit hours through the PLTW program and is now a sophomore at LCCC studying computer-aided machining to become a systems specialist. He could stay at LCCC and complete his bachelor’s degree through the University Partnership program or he could transfer to the University of Akron. He is undecided where he’ll finish, but either way, he is already the ideal success story.

Part of the reason LCCC became involved with the program was to expose high school students to the educational possibilities that exist here at home. “It allows us to serve high school students who may not be able to go away to a four-year college right now because of economic factors,” says Kelly Zelesnik, LCCC’s dean of engineering technology. “They get to know us, they get to know our labs and our equipment. If they decide they want to enter the engineering technology field, hopefully it would be a natural extension for them to strongly consider LCCC and the University Partnership.”

Zelesnik is fascinated by the mixture of engineering and technology aspects of the PLTW program. While they seem similar, Zelesnik says the job functions of an engineer and technician are far different. An engineer creates the design, while the technician builds the test equipment and determines whether the idea is feasible.

Engineering requires more calculus-based math, while technicians use more algebra-based math. A good technician is critical to the success of any engineer and PLTW offers courses for both.

One of the biggest separators in the PLTW program is the ability for students to see how things work first-hand. Instead of sitting in a chair memorizing the Pythagorean Theorem, they see how that theorem is critical in the construction of a staircase, for instance.

Bettcher Industries uses the students in the PLTW program to create prototype equipment based on the Birmingham company’s renderings. Tansey interned at Bettcher over the summer and his father is also an engineer there. It’s a quick turnaround (typically three days) and relatively inexpensive, a win-win for the business and the students.

“When you’re making a widget, it’s very helpful to have something in your hand that represents the assembly you want to look at,” says Bettcher Industries engineer Jeff Whited. “They can produce these plastic parts, and we can see what they look like, feel like and we can actually use them. It’s very helpful for us.”

The program is still in the infant stages, but making progress and adding students every day. The JVS estimates that 177 students across the county are involved with PLTW courses this fall. How many stick with the program remains to be seen, but that’s a large number of students exposed to engineering as a career who otherwise might never have given it much thought.

Plus, Lorain County’s PLTW students are going to the statehouse this fall to give a presentation about the program. While there are PLTW programs across the nation, this is believed to be the only one partnering with the community and leveraging resources to this degree.

“If you work with the local partners, you can save money, have a great experience and you’re going to get a much better program,” Pavlik says. “You’ll have a lot more people at the table with a lot more great ideas, which will ultimately benefit the students of Lorain County.”