State Superintendent Dorn visits Federal Way's Decatur pre-engineering program

Washington State Superintendent Randy Dorn speaks with students in Decatur High School
Washington State Superintendent Randy Dorn speaks with students in Decatur High School's pre-engineering program on Thursday.
— image credit: Greg Allmain, the Mirror

Washington State Superintendent Randy Dorn was at Decatur High School on Thursday to visit the school’s Project Lead the Way program, a successful and increasingly popular “pre-engineering program.”

The program is led by instructor Sean Smith, who spent most of his career in the aerospace industry, in which he helped develop the Boeing 757. Smith described the program’s rigor and the challenges it presents students.

“We have a four-year program. Introduction to Engineering and Design, Principles of Engineering, Aerospace Engineering and then we have a fourth year capstone project, kind of like what you’d see in college, called Engineering Design and Development,” Smith said in an interview during Dorn’s visit.

Smith described each of the years, saying the first year is spent on teaching students “how an engineer thinks” and all of its related processes.

“We give them a project, they have to come up with a brainstorming session, which is where they struggle the most,” Smith said. “At the start of the year, I might say, ‘I want you to come up with three ideas,’ and they have a hard time getting it done. By the end of the year, they’ll have 15, 16, 17 ideas. So it really helps them think about the creative process and problem solving on their own.”

Students spend part of the first year learning a 12-step design process, Smith added.

“They learn to get their ideas on paper, they learn how to document their ideas through sketching,” he said. “They learn about how to create blueprints and how to read them … They really get to see an idea from paper to software to real life, to see if it really does work. So they print it, and if it doesn’t work, they realize there’s … a  problem.”

The printing Smith referred to is 3D printing, the innovative and disruptive technology that’s been proliferating in recent years. Smith noted that in the second-year course, one of the projects they often do is creating C02-powered race cars printed from the 3D printer.


“Second year is a lot more physics. They build bridges, they take them to failure … They also build mousetrap cars. We even do C02 cars, where they build them in Inventor and then print them off,” he said.

The third year, Smith said, is heavily focused on aerospace engineering, where students learn the physics of flight and how to create and design various components. Decatur’s program is outfitted with a wind tunnel, so once again, students are able to get that taste of real-life engineering success or failure. Students also spend part of the third year learning about rocketry as well, where students take their knowledge of flight and try to apply it to rocketry, Smith added.

He said students are currently working on “intelligent vehicles” similar to the smart cars Google is in the process of designing, manufacturing and putting on the market.

“They’re programming robots. They give [the robots] a basic foundation and it does its own thing based on the code you wrote,” he said.

Shepherd Siegel, Director of School Engagement for Alaska and Washington for Project Lead the Way, said Decatur’s program is a model of what Project Lead the Way is all about.

“Everything in this class is cross-referenced with Common Core State Standards and Next Generation Science Standards,” Siegel said. “I’m hoping that these courses will be used as the state models for cross-course equivalency, so students can get math and science credit. This [classroom] is one that really stands out. The Career and Technical Education director here, Nancy Hawkins, does a tremendous job.”

According to information provided by the district, Decatur’s program started in 2008, with two sections taught by Smith. Student demand quickly resulted in three more sections in 2009. According to Smith, the popularity of the program has continued to increase, and Decatur will be adding another class to accommodate the 140-plus students expected to enroll.

To learn more about Project Lead the Way, visit


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