Walton County Schools Connect with STEM!
March 20, 2019
Sharing this outstanding article written about the recently implemented program Project Lead The Way – Launch, a PreK-5 STEM curriculum! EPIC 2 in every way!
The district recently implemented Project Lead the Way - Launch, a PreK-5 STEM curriculum, using Title IV, Part A funds to purchase materials, IPads and training.
Project Lead The Way (PLTW), according to the company's website, is "an activity-, project-, and problem-based (APB) instructional design centered on hands-on, real-world activities, projects, and problems that help students understand how the knowledge and skills they develop in the classroom may be applied in everyday life."
Pair that with a teacher who has a computer science degree, decades of real-world experience as a coding consultant (clients included Coca-Cola and Turner Broadcasting System) and a graduate degree in education—as well as support at the school, district and state level—and there exists a schematic for success at Bay Elementary School in Santa Rosa Beach. Students are excited and engaged, and in the exploratory project-based classrooms their “almosts” are framed as learning opportunities, not failures.
Nancy Rentz’s second grade class at Bay Elementary is learning about simple machines and forces and is constructing incline planes—ramps in simpler terms—in teams of three. Rentz is the STEM teacher for the school so she touches all students, gifted or not. In her classes, collaboration is evident; the excitement, contagious.
“What kind of forces did you use to test your incline planes?” Rentz asks the teams. They agree push was one force they used. She prods further. “Could we also do a pull?”
Students shout Yes! “And gravity is a pull, going down,” one offers. “You could pull it up,” says another, it meaning the tiger in this project. Elementary level PLTW modules usually begin with a story and proceed through three activities, a project and a final problem. The problem for these second graders was to figure out how to help the story’s tiger get out of a moat.
Rentz's third graders are learning about and testing coolers and insulators; fourth grade is engaged in the science of flight and balanced forces.
“Project Lead The Way is not a program to just create future engineers. It is a program that will help create more thinkers, more collaborators, more future producers.”- Karen Parisi, Project Lead The Way Trainer
Rentz focuses on four Cs: collaboration, critical thinking, communication and creativity. She says her goal is to help students realize they are creative, they are deep thinkers and they can design and build things whether they want to be engineers or not. Her classroom is a fun, energetic and safe learning space, but she does not let students off easy.
“There was lots of dead air in class,” she says. “It’s much better now as students get accustomed to the activities, expectations and my way of questioning. I wait through the uncomfortable silence after I ask a question. I won’t jump in and give them the answers.” They must work through it, she says; they can, and they do. “They are learning it’s OK to try and to fail. I make sure they know we all are learning and we all are making mistakes as we go along.”
Safety amidst that "failure" in PLTW sealed the deal years ago for Pam Cole, an elementary teacher and PLTW trainer from Wichita, Kansas. She and her colleague, Karen Parisi, provided training for Walton County teachers in January.
“There is beauty in failure and recovering. This program changed my life,” Cole says of PLTW. “Different kids can shine and be leaders. When I first implemented it, two of my lowest level kids performed the best on coding. They were using different skills, thinking differently. Even those who can’t read well can be very successful.”
PLTW lessons can be implemented as a whole class, in small groups or in centers. In Walton County, teachers used standards to choose the modules they wanted to include in classes. Christine Petersen, Digital Learning Specialist for Walton County School District, underwent PLTW training along with teachers. “Teachers can infuse technology into their instruction throughout the lesson,” she says. “They were excited to begin their projects, and PLTW will enhance their current science lessons and develop technology skills needed for the 21st century.”
Students say the science classes are fun. "We get to build things," one girl chirps while another counts holes in a plastic part, comparing it to the schematic on her team's iPad. The small groups are engaged and full of energy, and all appear on task.
Project Lead The Way is in its first year of implementation in Walton County schools, says Crystal Appel, Coordinator of Instructional Support Services. “The goal is to help more students prepare for the global workforce…It aligns with many of our middle and high school CTE program frameworks. PLTW has partnered with AP, and the College Board and PLTW have partnered on a program to encourage student participation in STEM degrees and careers,” she said via email.
Walton County School District plans to implement the program at the high school level next year, and Bay Elementary's goal is to be STEM-certified. The certification process takes two years.
As for students at Bay Elementary and other Walton County schools (Butler Elementary, Emerald Coast Middle and Walton Middle), they will continue exploring, building, working together and becoming fluent in academic and technological language through PLTW.
And yes, a few second graders have sights on becoming engineers.