When talking about math and science education, a few facts tend to come up repeatedly: Fields related to science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) are among the country’s fastest growing, most schools struggle to offer more than the bare minimum of STEM courses, and the combination is resulting in a massive deficit of qualified Americans to fill positions in these growing fields.
Administrators and educators have heard these facts, too — often from frustrated parents who want this course or that, or from universities struggling to attract highly qualified students to tech-related majors. Project Lead the Way, which offers readymade STEM curriculum and intensive teacher training to over 6,500 schools, has tried to fill some of those holes by increasing access to courses like computer science, especially in communities that would otherwise be unable to do so.
Take, for example, Los Alisos Middle School, in Norwalk, CA, outside of Los Angeles. Most of Los Alisos’ students qualify for federal programs for low-income families. Around 80% of students are Hispanic, and one in five is still learning English.
In 2011, the school became the first in the district to adopt Project Lead the Way’s curriculum. Today, five out the district’s six middle schools are STEM-focused. The sixth is focused on the arts, which are sometimes grouped with STEM as "STEAM," and even that school may begin offering computer science classes in the future.
A lot of that decision is driven by student requests. Los Alisos has been deluged with students they can’t fit who say they’re interested in engineering or computer science, and the district has had to catch up.
“There aren’t too many engineers in our area,” said Los Alisos principal Mike Garcia. “It’s opening up doors that wouldn’t open up for them otherwise.”
Multipurpose skills for students — and teachers
While Project Lead the Way’s focus is on STEM access, Garcia says it has had an impact on everything from school technology to instruction to high school preparation. The lessons provided are project-based and include major student-directed components.
Angelica Gunderson, one of the PLTW instructors at Los Alisos, says that leaves room for differentiation between students. “A lot of the projects are set up so that students are coming up with ideas,” she said. That means they often follow a predictable course: “We give them skills. We tell them, ‘You’re going to build this app.’” And then: “Now you think about what app you’d like to build.” Each student has the room to pick a project that works for them.
The result has been a boost in student engagement — as well as a shift in how both students and teachers think about their work.
“It seems so complicated when you think about computer science,” said Gunderson. “It really isn’t that complicated. You have to have a lot of patience, but if you can do that, you’ll be ok.”
Gunderson teaches students to manage their time and energy when working on problems and to break down the problem into its parts.
For Gunderson, the program transformed the way she organizes herself in addition to influencing the way she taught her other classes.
The effects of the program have spread beyond Los Alisos and have required collaboration. The first class of Los Alisos PLTW students is reaching the end of high school and more keep arriving. The high school, which only had an engineering program, has had to adapt to the wave of tech-savvy, STEM-hungry students.
Garcia, who originally worked at the high school, has worked with his former colleagues and district administrators to make sure the two schools’ approaches work well together.
“We’re creating this vertical alignment,” Garcia said. “If this is the rigor they’re receiving in middle school, they need to continue that.”
Garcia also recommends working closely with the district, especially its technology department, to prevent problems with tech-intensive programs.
Running the numbers
Garcia has one other word of caution for administrators: PLTW can be expensive to implement, both in terms of its costs and the associated technology purchases. Teachers spend several days in training and get access to online discussion boards and coaching throughout the year. The program offers readymade curriculum and includes a participation fee, and schools will likely have to make some big investments in technology — especially if they aren’t fully equipped for broadband or devices yet.
But Garcia says the financial side can be worked out. Los Alisos, for example, used its Title I funds to help finance the program in addition to district dollars and grants.
PLTW also offers help getting schools set up with grants. For example, the first two years of Los Alisos' computer science program through PLTW was paid for by a grant from Verizon.
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