One innovative program has found a way to increase student engagement while supporting innovative science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education curricular programs used in area middle and high schools.
Project Lead the Way is a middle school and high school project that seeks to create dynamic partnerships with schools and industry in order to prepare an increasing and more diverse group of students for success in engineering and engineering technology programs.
STEM education is at the heart of today’s high-tech, high-skill global economy. Experts say for America to remain economically competitive, the next generation of leaders — the students of today — must develop the critical-reasoning and problem-solving skills that will help make them the most productive in the world.
That’s where Project Lead the Way comes in.
Established in New York in 1997, the STEM-based education program engages students in activities, projects and problem-based learning, which provides hands-on classroom experiences. Students create, design, build, discover, collaborate and solve problems while applying what they learn in math and science.
They’re also exposed to STEM fields through professionals from local industries that supplement the real world aspect of the curriculum through mentorships and workplace experiences.
The hands-on, project-based engineering courses for high schools and middle schools, and biomedical sciences courses for high schools, engage students on multiple levels. The courses expose them to areas of study that they typically do not pursue, and provide them with a foundation and proven path to college and career success.
More than 4,200 schools in all 50 states and the District of Columbia offered Project Lead the Way courses to their students in the 2011-12 school year. In addition, PLTW has trained more than 10,500 teachers to instruct its engaging, rigorous STEM education curriculum.
In 2008, Kentucky’s STEM task force recommended the Commonwealth adopt Project Lead the Way as a career pathway program statewide. As part of the University of Kentucky’s commitment to the advancement of pre-engineering education, the university provides PLTW affiliate university support. This support includes professional development of teachers, administrators and guidance counselors.
“Some of the challenges we face is how do we get youth involved with this,” said Torey K. Earle, WKCTC liaison for Project Lead the Way. “Once a lot of them get in it, they get hooked and we’re starting to see a trend that they are going to carry that on into their post secondary education.”
Nine counties in western Kentucky, including McCracken, Graves, and Marshall, have Project Lead the Way programs in their school districts. The expansion of the program into more counties and in front of more students depends in no small amount to building a dedicated network of volunteers and supporters.
The curriculum, delivered through PLTW’s Virtual Academy, is provided free of charge to schools that register with PLTW. But classroom equipment — computer software and kits for hands-on activities — along with teacher training, which is required, are the main costs related to the program.
Support from businesses and industries are vital to the continued local success of the program.
Earle, 4-H Agent for Science, Engineering and Technology, said there are many ways that business and industries can support PLTW.
In addition to obvious monetary support, local business and industry might get involved by hosting a class field trip, speaking at a career day or donating appropriate equipment. Earle said anything, big or small, that helps students become more engaged in STEM learning and creates a more dynamic experience is valuable.
“As an employer, any program that is teaching kids thinking skills, teamwork skills and problem solving skills can’t be bad because that’s really one of the things that we see is lacking in young people coming into our work environment these days so any program that will focus on those skills is a great program,” said Bill Logan, a member of the Paducah Area Chamber of Commerce.
Ken Wheeler, a member of Kentucky’s state board for Project Lead the Way, said business leaders who have learned about the project have been enthusiastic about the program. “This is a program that really does have a dynamic that’s hard to believe until you’ve actually been in one of the classes,” Wheeler said. “To me it’s a totally different experience than any other secondary education experience that I have ever seen or been involved with.”
For information on supporting Project Lead the Way in western Kentucky, contact Torey Earle at 270-534-3105 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Janett M. Blythe, a former reporter for The Paducah Sun, has been director of public relations at West Kentucky Community & Technical College for 19 years.
Project Lead the Way gets results
According to the national Project Lead the Way program:
• Among high school seniors, 92 percent of those taking PLTW courses intend to pursue a four-year degree or higher, 51 percent intend to pursue a graduate degree and 70 percent intend to study engineering, technology or computer science.
By comparison, 67 percent of all beginning postsecondary students intended to pursue a bachelor’s degree or higher as reported by the National Center for Education Statistics. (True Outcomes – 2009)
• About 90 percent of students who take PLTW courses, and were surveyed at the end of their senior year, said they had a clear and confident sense of the types of college majors and jobs they intended to pursue. Those students also said that their PLTW experiences were very significant in developing this self-knowledge, and their PLTW experiences significantly increased their ability to succeed in postsecondary education. (True Outcomes – 2009)
• College students, who took PLTW courses in high school, study engineering and technology at 5 to 10 times the rate of those students who did not take PLTW courses in high school and also have higher retention rates in their fields of study.