How One Engineer was Empowered by Project Lead the Way

Zoë Ledbetter Zoë Ledbetter graduated from the Howard County Public School System (HCPSS) in 2010 after completing four years in the Project Lead the Way (PLTW) program at Marriotts Ridge High School. Ledbetter received her bachelor’s degree in civil engineering from the University of Maryland, College Park and is currently working for Bechtel Corporation as a civil and structural engineer. Here she shares how PLTW made her ready for college and an engineering career.

“I can’t be an engineer–I’m not good at math or science.” If I had $1 for every time I’ve heard this, I could retire tomorrow.

But seriously, there is a big misconception about engineers, and the truth is there is no one “type” of person who becomes an engineer. While it is important that engineers have a solid background in math and science, the best engineers are people who use their communication skills, imagination, and analytical abilities to invent, design, and create things that make a difference in the world.

The problem is that most young people don’t know an engineer or even what engineers do. Before high school, I was one of those people. But during my high school orientation, a guest speaker told my class about a new opportunity–a program called Project Lead the Way (PLTW). It sounded like an exciting, hands-on program, so I decided to sign up for the first class, Introduction to Engineering Design. Little did I know, the PLTW program would completely change my plans for the future and my outlook on engineering as a profession.

Engineering is a foreign concept for most students, but PLTW takes obscure concepts (like physics, math, programming) and translates them into real world applications. My favorite PLTW class was Principles of Engineering–this class offered just the right combination of lectures and hands-on problem solving. Whether we were building a ping-pong ball launcher, programming a marble sorter, or beating a robot in a game of tic-tac-toe, my PLTW classes always kept me engaged, determined, and enthusiastic about engineering, even throughout my four years of college.

Don’t get me wrong, there were definitely times when I thought about changing majors, but I am happy I stuck with my choice. The freshman engineering drop-out rate at the university level is much higher than most subjects:  about 40 percent! I am not trying to scare any middle or high school students out there, but it’s important to understand why this rate is so high. Several factors could be at play here: either students are having trouble adjusting to the rigor of college-level classes, had a misconception of what engineering is or find they do not enjoy engineering after all.

The PLTW engineering program helped me overcome all three of these possible difficulties. The five PLTW classes I took were all college-level courses that required a fair amount of time outside the classroom and helped me acquire time management skills that were vital in college. While not all of my PLTW peers went on to major in engineering, the exposure to it at a young age helped them determine what type of career they didn’t want to have, which is just as important as figuring out what career you do want. Just having exposure to engineering and a basic knowledge of engineering principles boosted my confidence in entry-level college courses. Even when I was studying until 3 o’clock in the morning, or when I didn’t do very well on an exam, I always knew a degree in engineering was attainable.

Now, seven years after graduating from HCPSS, I have gotten the chance to work on several fascinating projects and start my career as an engineer. There is a good chance I would not be an engineer today if I had not been exposed to engineering in such an approachable environment that PLTW classes offered. If any young students out there are interested in making a difference in the world, PLTW is a great program that will show you how engineers change the world every day.

Project Lead the Way is one career academy in HCPSS’ Career and Technical Education (CTE) program. Ledbetter’s guest blog is part of HCPSS’ participation in celebrating CTE Month®, this February. To learn more about our CTE offerings, please watch the HCPSS Insight: Career and Technology Education.