They are popular items among kids trying to build robots, appliances, and other mechanical gizmos.

I was visiting what’s called a preengineering class. Its content might be a surprise to those who haven’t been inside a high school recently. More and more, the traditional wood-shop classes have gone the way of the buggy whip. Taking their place is problem- based teaching of industrial skills and science.

Teachers have long known that some kids just don’t take to the usual academic agenda of lectures and textbooks. Since the 1990s, there has been a movement to fold get-your-handsdirty teaching into the curricula of middle and high-school classes. Judging by the reports I received on a field trip to local schools, the approach works pretty well.

One teacher told me she’d had a kid with a 1.9 GPA become a 4.0 student when he got the chance to apply concepts in hands-on courses. Then there’s something called Project Lead the Way. PLTW is an attempt to expose middle and high-school students to engineering concepts. If you think that means drilling kids on physics and higher math, guess again.

“One of the first things I teach is presentation skills,” explained a PLTW instructor. His students, 22 boys and 7 girls this year, started out describing the design of familiar household products, then tried to make improvements. These projects also get them working in teams studying objects such as desk organizers and puzzle cubes.

The teachers we ran into give PLTW high marks. “It’s a lot toughe r than what we used to teach. Good thing I have the answers to the quiz questions! There’s more applied physics, but kids have fun because they don’t know they’re learning physics,” said one instructor.

PLTW educators tend to be former industrial-arts instructors who once taught wood shop. It’s easy to see why they switched over. “I know a good program when I see it,” one told me. “You are going to get the best and the brightest in these activities, and the classes are basically a playground for the teacher. Besides, I can’t excite kids this way in an English class.”

You also might be surprised how kids end up in PLTW. “I was recruited by the teacher,” one told me. For another, “This class was a surprise on my schedule when I was a freshman. But I liked it because I got the chance to do something different.”

This sort of informal recruitment may increasingly be unnecessary as more districts migrate PLTW from high school down into middle schools. One thing is clear from talking to PLTW students: Word gets around about classes that are fun.

Unfortunately the word isn’t getting out to parents. Administrators at a regional vocational school, where students can take PLTW skills to the next level, tell me many parents still have a mind-set that industrial and engineering skills somehow denote second-class status. All the preengineering programs in the world won’t fix that.