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The project-based STEM curriculum that’s big on real-world rigor

A STEM curriculum introduces students to real-world engineering

Berrien Springs Public Schools in rural Michigan started off with a modest enough goal: to add an engineering component to their curriculum in order to draw out-of-district students to their schools and to meet anticipated state standards. But perhaps not even they could have foreseen the sea change that came next.

These days, first graders design a shoe for a traveler going to an extreme climate. Second graders investigate numerical relationships and sequence and structure required in computer programs. Fourth graders develop a vehicle restraint system. Middle and high school students build VEX robots and program them using RobotC software. They also use Autodesk Inventor to create 3D models that are then printed on their own 3D printer. And all grades are doing various levels of coding.

The breakthrough came two years ago when Berrien Springs took a cue from its neighbor to the south, Indiana, and the work they were doing with Project Lead the Way (PLTW), a provider of STEM curriculum to 8,000 schools nationwide that takes a problem-based approach to learning focusing on critical thinking, problem-solving and real-world relevance. The curriculum has a strong engineering component, as well as separate units in biomedical science and computer science. A course on cybersecurity will be added in 2017.

“It’s a great, great program,” said Emma Haygood, a middle school science teacher for 16 years who moved to the Berrien Springs district office last year to become STEM coordinator. “We looked at a couple of other programs, but this was the most engaging. It makes kids think.”

Jessica Donaldson had a similar reaction when she first encountered PLTW. As instructional technologist for the Berkeley County School District in South Carolina, she was being given a tour of a middle school class where the students were designing and building robots. “They were so engrossed. They were just completely oblivious to the fact I was even in the room,” she said. She was hooked by the student engagement, the teacher enthusiasm, the projects that linked to the real world. When she was given an opportunity to go back to the classroom and use PLTW, she “jumped at the chance” and is now teaching fifth through eighth graders at Cane Bay Middle School in Summerville, S.C.

Real-world connections

One of Donaldson’s favorite projects has students creating a pull toy using VEX IQ, a robotics platform that combines physical kits with coding. “I’m amazed at what they come up with,” she said. One group of students decorated a pull toy so that it looked like a giant pumpkin. As the pumpkin was pulled forward using a string, a ghost made of Kleenex popped out and then dropped back down again.

And students are doing it all themselves. “They learn to build these simple gears,” Donaldson explained. “After they build the series of gears and learn how they work, then the challenge is they have to create and design and build a toy that meets certain criteria: ‘It must do this. It must do this.’ They get no pictures.”

Haygood’s favorite project involved building a playground. The “clients” were the elementary students. The engineers were the seventh grade students. The older students, working in small groups, first interviewed 3-5th graders about what they wanted in a playground. They wanted themes — Candyland, Minecraft. They wanted a slide, a climbing wall, a sandbox. The budding engineers researched playground safety, height and weight limits, other requirements for playgrounds and playground equipment. Using Autodesk Inventor — the same software used by professional engineers — they designed individual pieces and went back to their clients for feedback. “That’s not what I was picturing in my head,” was one reaction. When an older student complained that the younger kids should have been more specific in what they wanted, Haygood asked if they’d asked the children the pertinent questions, or if they should have asked the youngsters to draw a sketch of what they wanted.

“I always try to bring it back to: ‘Do you think these are problems engineers have in the real world?’ . . . There are so many real-world connections. It’s not building a project just to build a project.”

Grading was less about the final product than the process, and more about demonstrating their use of the 4Cs. The students got to present their projects in any form they choose.

Both Donaldson and Haygood said students also particularly enjoyed biomedical science projects that let fifth graders become medical detectives and study the start of an illness from patient zero and how it spread. High school students do a bioscience unit in which they take evidence and information from a crime scene and figure out how a person died.

Dr. Vince Bertram, CEO of PLTW and a former principal and superintendent of schools in Indiana, said the PLTW projects aim to help students “thrive in this evolving world.” The future members of the workforce need to be able to solve problems, think critically, communicate, articulate and defend their ideas and collaborate. “These are the skills that are in high demand and those are the skills we really try to foster in our students,” he said.

Changing teacher practice

As important a PLTW goal as creating 21st century collaborative problem-solvers is making sure teachers get the right training to turn out those problem-solvers. “We take a lot of pride in making sure the training is relevant for teachers, but it’s also transformational from the standpoint that it changes teacher practice,” said Bertram.

Haygood and Donaldson praised the professional development. “You go through every activity the kids will go through. It’s absolutely the most intense professional development I’ve ever had,” said Haygood. Both she and Donaldson also said it was also the most successful because besides the original training, there is follow-up, regular updating of the curriculum and inclusion in a nationwide network of other teachers and experts.”

Bertram said PLTW, which has grown 30 percent each of the last five years and has had 29,000 teachers go through the training, is not necessarily about creating future scientists, mathematicians and computer experts — although he thinks that will be a byproduct of the program. Instead, it’s about giving students choices.

“Too often our children get to the point, whether it’s the end of high school or into college, where they have significant deficits in math and science that limit their options,” Bertram said. “We want to make sure they have those options.”

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