Two students inspect one part from their vehicle VEX kit.

WDMCS Implements Project Lead The Way K–12

Three students in Gretchen Fackler's fourth-grade class at Hillside discuss plans for their glider.

Three students in Gretchen Fackler’s third-grade class at Hillside discuss plans for their glider.

The West Des Moines Community Schools district is one of the first in the state to implement Project Lead The Way (PLTW) elements throughout the district. The PLTW non-profit is the nation’s leading provider of science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) programs. Use of PLTW programs is being facilitated by Shane Scott, director of curriculum, and Annie Orsini, Professional Development/ Curriculum Facilitator for K-6 Mathematics and Science.

“My experience was that we might gather data or do a ‘cookbook’ lab,” said Scott, a former science teacher. “Today, it’s more about, ‘Now that you know these scientific principles, let’s use them in a way that improves the human experience.’”

Enter Project Lead The Way. Some of the organization’s innovative programs were first used at Valley High School in 2010. Valley Southwoods began using PLTW elements in 2013, and the junior high schools followed in 2014. The district is now implementing two new PLTW units in every K–5 science class, with the help of four grants from the Governor’s STEM Advisory Council and two from the Bemis Company Foundation.

“Our students were already experiencing a lot of hands-on activities,” Orsini said. “With this, we’re just going deeper.”

The Project Lead The Way Engineering Design Process: Ask, Explore, Model, Evaluate, Explain.

The Project Lead The Way Engineering Design Process.

In the new units, students will use the PLTW engineering design process: ask, explore, model, evaluate, and explain. Instead of going one-way, the process allows students to improve their designs after testing, like adults collaborating on a real-world design.

“What is unique with this model of programming is there are multiple solutions,” Scott said. “Students test the solutions they’ve designed, and get to go back and make adjustments.”

Third-grade students at Hillside Elementary recently studied the “Science of Flight.” After building a knowledge base about force and Newton’s Laws of Motion, they were tasked with delivering supplies to a remote area hit by a natural disaster. Small groups collaborated to construct gilders to carry the supplies, represented by binder clips.

Hillside fourth-grade teacher Gretchen Fackler guides a reflective discussion about the gliders after the launches.

Hillside third-grade teacher Gretchen Fackler guides a reflective discussion about the gliders after the launches.

The goal was for the glider to go 10 feet forward when launched, with two clips attached. All groups were asked what they could do to improve their glider after launching. If the glider did not go 10 feet, their adjustments focused on meeting that goal. If it completed the journey, they worked on redesigning their gliders to carry more disaster-relief supplies.

Groups explained the ideas behind their designs after testing. They backed up their decisions with knowledge of force, motion, lift and drag, and the balance of weight. Hillside teacher Gretchen Fackler highlighted the fact that the two most successful gliders had dissimilar designs. Students also completed logs of their progress and different designs they tried. This reflection is a cornerstone of PLTW programming.

Fourth-grade students at Fairmeadows Elementary have questions about their VEX Robotics Design System kits.

Students in Amber Kuehler’s fourth-grade class have questions about their VEX Robotics Design System kits.

“Students have to argue from evidence,” Scott said. “They have to be persuasive. It is very interdisciplinary with the use of reading, writing, and mathematics.”

PLTW uses the evaluate and explain design process steps to reinforces the universal constructs: critical thinking, complex communication, creativity, collaboration, flexibility and adaptability, and productivity and accountability. These skills are not tied to a specific subject area, but considered “essential for 21st century success” by Iowa CORE and many employers.

Future employers may also be pleased to hear that PLTW includes robotics units. The Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts computer and mathematical occupations will grow by 18 percent between 2012 and 2022, compared to an average growth of 10.8 percent. With PLTW, students will begin studying robotics and simple machines using VEX Robotics Design System kits in third and fourth grades. Fifth-grade students explore true robotics, using an app and computer to program a hazardous waste removal robot.

One student group compares the parts they have to what they are seeing in the instructions on their iPad.

One student group compares the VEX kit parts they have to what they are seeing in the instructions on their iPad.

“The robot exposes students to that programming: telling a piece of technology what to do and how to perform a task,” Orsini said.

Gliders and robots may be more fun than microscope slides and workbooks, but PLTW programs are also rich with relevant science knowledge and skills. What sets Project Lead The Way apart from other programming is that it makes gaining that knowledge more authentic and engaging for students.