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How STEM learning invigorates classrooms

A Q&A with Project Lead the Way's CEO, Vince Bertram, about the importance of STEM learning

eSchool News (eSN) recently spoke with Vince Bertram, the chief executive officer of Project Lead The Way (PLTW)—an organization that has been bringing real-world and hands-on STEM learning into the classroom for 22 years—about the importance of STEM education. PLTW creates an engaging, hands-on classroom environment and empowers students to develop the in-demand knowledge and skills they need to thrive. The organization also provides teachers with the training, resources, and support they need to engage students in real-world learning.

A look at how STEM learning invigorates classrooms

eSN: How do you look at STEM ed?

PLTW: I think schools look at STEM ed as discrete subjects, but we think of it as a foundation to our economy and how STEM connects to every industry. From a student perspective, it’s not just learning math for the sake of it but understanding the relevance of math and science in an applied way. Hands-on activities that connect with real-world examples make it relevant. We can give lots of examples to the “When will I use this again” question.

We want to help students develop transferrable high-demand skills: to communicate, collaborate, think creatively, and have ethical reasoning skills. Those are learned skills, and that’s where we’re focused.

Related: 11 educators share how they bring coding into the classroom

STEM isn’t just for kids going into STEM careers; STEM skills can be applied across the curriculum. Think about the arts. The arts are made possible because of STEM. We make paintbrushes and paint and canvas; we use technology, math, science, and engineering to create sculptures. Performing arts includes set design, costume design, and acoustical panels, and STEM is part of how we create all this. We need everyone to see all those connections and for students to have a much broader understanding.

eSN: What about computer science? What role does that play?

PLTW: Only 35 percent of computer science majors work in the tech industry, which mean that 65 percent work for all other industries. With a CS degree you can work in virtually any industry. Even if you go into visual arts, you have to understand the composition of paints and metallics, which is science.

Part of our challenge is the professional development of teachers. We have to help them understand how it connects.

eSN: How can we help teachers better understand the connection?

PLTW: Teacher training is more than a transfer of knowledge; it’s a fundamental change in how teachers deliver classroom instruction. For years, we taught teachers to be performers, to share information, to be the center of knowledge. PLTW does the opposite—we make the learner take responsibility for their learning.

We tell teachers: ‘You’ll know you’re making progress when students ask questions that you don’t know the answer to. That’s how new knowledge is created.’

If you don’t know the answer, tell your students and say, ‘Let’s figure it out.’ Companies spend billions of dollars in R&D because they are trying to answer questions and find new ways of doing things. It’s the same with research universities. Let’s create those kinds of labs in America’s classrooms and nurture curiosity so students think deeply—give students room to explore, be curious, and try to answer questions.

As Amaira Canas Padilla, one of our PLTW teachers in the Klein Independent School District (ISD) in Texas, so aptly put it: ‘Teaching PLTW was more of using the right opportunity to give of the right question than giving of right answers. It was more of teaching how to find the answers and become independent and lifelong learners rather than just teaching a direct concept.’

eSN: What if a teacher wants to do some of this work but is in a district that doesn’t offer it?

PLTW: If funding is a problem, we provide a lot of grant opportunities. I encourage districts to start by rethinking teacher PD. It should be about the skills you want to help teachers develop and the knowledge you want them to have—not just the curriculum. The #1 thing I’d focus on: How do we make all classes relevant to our students?

eSN: Can you share examples of standout districts within the PLTW network for our readers?

PLTW: Absolutely. There are lots of districts doing great work. We recently announced our 2019 educational leader and teacher of the year recipients and maintain an ongoing list of distinguished schools and districts. A few additional districts that immediately come to mind: Barren County School District in Kentucky, which is doing terrific work around career pathways and expanding career learning; Orange County Public Schools in Florida, which partnered with Lockheed Martin to expand its STEM offerings; and Klein ISD, which continues to partner with Chevron to provide comprehensive K-12 curricular pathways in STEM learning.

In fact, Klein ISD was recently selected to host a district-wide showcase to demonstrate its successful implementation of PLTW programs and the strong STEM culture it’s fostered. Klein ISD’s director of career & technical education, Deborah Bronner-Westerduin, has seen firsthand how establishing a STEM foundation and pathway has encouraged continued STEM learning: ‘In Klein ISD, we believe that every student enters with a promise and exits with a purpose. For the last three years, Klein ISD has offered the PLTW Gateway for eighth-grade students. We are now seeing a significant rise in engineering course enrollment at all five of our high schools. I believe this is can be attributed to the project-based experience students are receiving at the intermediate level.’

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