Teacher and Inner-City Students Aim High with Pro/ENGINEER

Name: David West
School: Trenton Central High School, Trenton, New Jersey
Impact: Teacher uses powerful design software to provide students with real life skills

David West has been a teacher at Trenton Central High School for just two years but students in his mechanical design classes will experience his impact on their careers for years to come. West is the only teacher in New Jersey and one of a handful in the United States who are teaching high school students to use Pro/ENGINEER, industry's most sophisticated and powerful 3D design software.

His feat is all the more impressive because he is teaching low-income, inner-city students who overcome many obstacles to excel. When he decided to teach Pro/ENGINEER, he recalls, "Other teachers told me I was crazy." But West's students have thrived on the challenge.

West, 53, began his career in the automotive industry at Rockwell International Corporation. He managed employees who used computer-aided design to create products for the company, and left after 10 years to pursue an MBA, work as a management consultant, and start a small business. In 2000, he decided to fulfill a lifelong ambition and teach high school math in the inner city.

Shortly after starting his new position, he was approached by the school administration about developing and teaching a mechanical design course. He jumped at the opportunity and selected Pro/ENGINEER to be the "backbone" of his new curriculum. David is a pioneer for a program that is now available to others interested in teaching Pro/ENGINEER at the high school level.

Below West discusses how he helps his students achieve success by aiming high with Pro/ENGINEER.

Getting started

Tell us about your school and what classes do you teach?
"Trenton Central High School is the primary high school in the city of Trenton, a once-great manufacturing city that has lost most of its industrial base. About 2,700 students attend this school each year. The student population is roughly 96 percent minorities. Sadly, less than 40 percent of our incoming freshman graduate, and only half of our graduates go on to college.

"I currently spend half my time teaching math, primarily Algebra II and Trigonometry, and the other half of my time teaching Introduction to Mechanical Design for grades 10 to 12. The only prerequisite for the design course is Algebra I. My design class averages 16-20 students and is taught on a block schedule for a five-month semester."

What made you decide to use Pro/ENGINEER to teach computer-aided design (CAD) and what obstacles did you need to overcome?
"When I worked in industry, my colleagues used Pro/ENGINEER so I was familiar with the product. When I decided to teach mechanical design, I knew that I wanted an industry-standard CAD tool that would provide my students with the practical skills currently demanded in the workforce.

"It was a natural decision to teach with Pro/ENGINEER, and I didn't really have any obstacles to overcome because a lot of people were supporting my decision. My school purchased nine new computers specifically for my Introduction to Mechanical Design class. Also, because nearby Princeton University uses Pro/ENGINEER, and our students work with theirs each year in a national robotics competition, my administrators agreed that Pro/ENGINEER was the logical choice. The $2,500 annual fee was a good value because it entitled us to unlimited seats of Pro/ENGINEER, technical support and a one-week training class on using the software."

What other CAD packages did you consider?
"I looked at AutoDesk because another teacher in the school uses their software. Pro/ENGINEER seemed like the industry standard for serious mechanical design and I knew there were a lot of employers looking for people with Pro/ENGINEER skills. So after some checking around, I decided to take the high road and go with Pro/ENGINEER. I figured that even those students who didn't go on to college would get a valuable set of career skills that they could build on."

A creative curriculum

What kind of curriculum do you use to teach in your Intro to Mechanical Design class?
"I developed my own curriculum specifically for this class. It consists of three components. First, I teach students the basics of engineering drawing - how to visualize objects in 2D and how to sketch orthographically.

"The next component is creative design. I give the students a series of problems that require 'right brain' creative thinking - for instance, 'design and build a machine that can propel a half-sheet of paper over the greatest distance at the lowest cost.' These creative design problems require that students describe their solutions with drawings before building them.

"The final component in my class is computer-aided design. First I introduce students to Pro/ENGINEER and do a few demos on my laptop, projecting the computer display onto a large wall screen. This is where students really get hooked. You can feel their excitement and eagerness to get started.

"I prepare students, so they understand that the initial few days of learning Pro/ENGINEER will be challenging but that within a week they will be cruising along, creating their own designs, and having fun doing it. I've made a bunch of props to help my students visualize new concepts, like a small clear plastic cube that hinges open to create orthographic projections, a clay press to demonstrate extruded protrusions and a wire frame that illustrates revolved and swept geometries.

"Once students are proficient in Pro/ENGINEER, I give them some more creative design problems. Instead of describing their solutions with pencil drawings, they build 3D models on the computer. My classroom is filled with really nice color prints of their Pro/ENGINEER designs."

Do you have any success stories around using Pro/ENGINEER in your classroom?
"There are quite a few encouraging things that I've noticed since teaching this course. First, my kids come to class! I have an attendance rate of about 90 percent, and my kids get to class on time. Once we start working on Pro/ENGINEER, there is an energy level in the class that you don't usually find in schools like ours. And I've got students from previous semesters who use their free time to come into my class and work on independent CAD projects.

"There was one student in particular who wasn't too excited about academics, but he loved cars, as I do. He would draw pictures of cars all the time. When he found out that he could design cars on Pro/ENGINEER, he really started paying attention in class. He would even come in after school to work for an hour or so, putting his designs on the computer. At one point, he asked me how his mother could purchase Pro/ENGINEER for him for Christmas. I think he was a really disappointed when I explained that the software wasn't available in retail stores*. But this story shows you how Pro/ENGINEER can change a kid's attitude about learning."

What it's all about

What advice would you give other teachers thinking about implementing Pro/ENGINEER?
"I think high school students need to be exposed to what industry is doing because whether they go on to college or not, a lot of them will be going into industry to work. We need to give our students opportunities that mirror what they'll most likely see in the real world. They need to be on top of the technology curve so they aren't left behind.

"I think that learning Pro/ENGINEER has helped a lot of my students see themselves in a brighter light, given them great hands-on experience and opened a gateway of opportunity for their future after high school."

You are successfully helping high school students, many of them from extremely challenging backgrounds, meet the standards of some of the country's leading product development companies. How does this make you feel?
"I came to teaching a couple of years ago as a way of expressing my gratitude for all the great opportunities I've had in life. I wanted to share some of the passion I feel for mathematics, engineering and design with students in the inner city.

"Teaching turns out to be a lot tougher than I thought it would be. But when my kids show me how hard they're willing to work, and what they can achieve, I'm very proud of them."

*PTC is honored to donate the Pro/ENGINEER Student Edition to this student.