Get Schooled: Warhill Earns National Certification for Engineering Courses

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Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe speaks with Warhill PLTW students at the Virginia Workforce Conference Oct. 6. (Photo courtesy of Jeff Carroll)
Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe speaks with Warhill PLTW students at the Virginia Workforce Conference Oct. 6. (Photo courtesy of Jeff Carroll)

Five years ago, Warhill High School’s Project Lead the Way classes were on the verge of being cut – there had been teacher turnover for two years and engineering courses were under-enrolled.

But since teacher John Aughenbaugh took over the program in 2011, the Project Lead the Way offerings have expanded, leading the school to earn national PLTW certification this year.

“It’s fantastic. It’s grown in leaps and bounds,” Aughenbaugh said. “The program, it’s been blessed.”

Project Lead the Way is a national nonprofit that develops project-based curricula for science, technology, math and engineering courses. National certification benefits both the students and the school as a whole, Aughenbaugh said, because it expands opportunities for students to receive college credit and promotes the school division’s commitment to technology programs.

“When a school becomes certified, it’s a good example to their neighbors, not only to show they have a technology program, but also that they’re committed to having a robust technology education and engineering program,” Aughenbaugh said.

Warhill offers five PLTW classes, ranging from an introductory engineering course to a senior project course. In the spring, Warhill will offer a PLTW computer science course for the first time, which will cover topics like app development.

Senior Elise Breen said she had read about teenagers who had won robot competitions but could not imagine programming a robot herself. That all changed when she enrolled in the introductory engineering course to earn her technology credit.

She went on to take a digital electronics course, where students produced tools such as a random number generator using circuits – challenges Breen compared to logic puzzles. She said she is planning to take the computer science class in the spring.

“I wasn’t passionate at first, but then I took digital electronics,” Breen said. “Now I’m open to engineering.”

Breen was one of five students from Warhill who traveled to Richmond last week for the Virginia Workforce Conference, where they shared what they have created with state business leaders and government officials, including Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe.

“They were amazed that we’re doing all this in high school,” Breen said.

In February, a group of Warhill PLTW students traveled to Washington, D.C. to present a small-scale manufacturing plant, originally a class assignment that turned into a student-led afterschool project. Warhill’s PLTW students have gone on to pursue apprenticeships or study at Virginia Tech, Old Dominion University, Virginia Commonwealth University and more.

Aughenbaugh said the program would not be where it is today without the unconditional support of Warhill’s administration, which allowed him to buy new equipment and transform a former math classroom into a workshop.

“As long as you ask, the things that you need come along,” Aughenbaugh said. “The school supports the career-readiness of students wholeheartedly.”

Warhill’s principal Jeff Carroll said it is important the school continues to offer PLTW classes because they help students make real-world connections to their studies and gives them a leg-up when they apply to post-high school opportunities.

“They’re able to create projects and see their efforts come to life in front of them in these courses,” Carroll said.