There are no long lectures in Gene Dew's Digital Electronics class at Woodbridge Senior High School.
His students don't spend hours copying formulas from a chalkboard or working out problems from a textbook. Instead, they pore over circuit diagrams and solve versions of the same kinds of problems they would see as professional engineers.
The class is intended for students who are interested in learning what the engineering profession has to offer. Just as in the real world, they take the information Dew gives them to solve problems in collaboration with their classmates.
"It's easy if you pay attention," said Luis Ceja, a 17-year-old junior, barely looking up from his computer, where he was creating a simulated circuit. After creating the circuit, he was expected to "test" his design to make sure it functioned as expected. "It's a good class to take. You're doing new stuff every day in this class."
The machinery and tools once used in high school vocational programs are long gone. Every high school offers a variety of vocational programs, such as computer certification at Forest Park, automotive technology at Hylton and practical nursing at Osbourn Park.
With a $50,000 grant from Project Lead the Way, a national program aimed at training more engineers, Woodbridge is the first school in the county to offer engineering courses. Prince William County added $50,000 from its Perkins Grant funds, a federal program that supports vocational education, to buy new equipment and pay for teacher training.
Digital Electronics is the first class offered. Next year, Woodbridge will offer Introduction to Engineering Design and Principles of Engineering. In the future, the county would like to offer Computer Integrated Manufacturing, which will introduce students to robotics and automation, and Engineering Design and Development, which will require students to solve an open-ended engineering problem.
That's just what engineering is, said Don Maeyer, career and technical education specialist for Prince William schools.
"It's problem-solving," Maeyer said. "A lot of times people can't solve problems because they don't have experience in that. Another thing we push is communication and working together."
Another part of the course requires input from a board of advisers, which includes professional engineers. Troy Cherasaro, an electrical engineer with Lockheed Martin's Naval Electronics and Surveillance Center, has already visited Dew's classroom to talk with students.
"It's great to have something like this," he said "When I was in high school, I never had much to feed those interests."
The closest he had was a class in computer programming. Cherasaro went to college and studied computer science, but when he learned that his skills lay more in engineering, he switched colleges to pursue the profession.
"One of the big points I made is to try and figure it out now," Cherasaro said he told students. "It's not so easy to transfer schools once you're already there."
The new classes are already proving to be popular additions. Dew said that many of the courses he will teach next year are already full.
Project Lead the Way also provides training for guidance counselors, so they can steer students to the courses. Other than having an interest in engineering, students must take a college-level math track.
"These kids get to see how math works here," said Kathleen Kunze, supervisor of the county's career and technical education. The students get to see "why do I need to know this?"