by Mary Wilson
Elementary classrooms look much different today than they did 30, 15, or five years ago. A glimpse inside Tyler Stolberg’s fifth grade classroom at Belvidere Elementary in the Grandview School District will not show students at their desks in rows, the teacher standing at the front of the class while students take notes as he lectures, or even a traditional chalkboard.
Stolberg’s room, to the untrained eye, may seem like complete chaos. Some students are standing in small groups around their desks; others are lounging on a rug in a corner. IPads are powered on and students are loudly engaged in their assignment, while Stolberg mills his way around (and over some), to help answer and guide the students in their project.
Three years ago, Stolberg began integrating Project Lead the Way (PLTW) into his fifth-grade classroom. He began with two launch modules, infection detection and energy and collisions. The next year, he added a third module, and the district added two more teachers to launch the program in their classrooms alongside Stolberg. His students have outperformed the district average in testing scores.
“I’ve kept adding to it from there,” said Stolberg. “It’s really been blossoming and our students are getting great opportunities from it. Not only is it a part of my science curriculum, but now, with what we’re doing in the classroom, it’s a part of our entire curriculum. We’re tying it into everything.”
The Grandview C-4 School District prides itself on being a leader in innovative teaching and learning practices in all classrooms. In fact, the district was one of the first in the area to implement Project Lead the Way; and by the 2018-19 school year, PLTW will be expanded into all schools and implemented at every grade level. The PLTW Launch program empowers students to adopt a design-thinking mindset through compelling activities, projects, and problems that build upon each other and relate to the world around them. It allows students to engage in hands-on activities in computer science, engineering, and biomedical science.
“The district’s commitment to PLTW is more than 10 years in the making,” said Grandview C-4 Superintendent Dr. Kenny Rodrequez. “PLTW has provided additional opportunities for all of our students to have engaging classroom environments where they can solve real world problems while critically thinking and collaborating with each other.”
On Thursday, December 7, PLTW President and CEO Vince Bertram toured Belvidere, visiting the district’s innovation classrooms, which are designed to provide out-of-the box instruction to students.
PLTW, now in its 20th year of operation, is a nonprofit organization which focuses on the belief that all students, of every age, need access to real-world, applied learning experiences that empower them to gain the skills they need to thrive in college, career, and beyond. Upon hearing of the program, Bertram, a principal at the time, implemented it into his own school.
“Within a year, we had 300 students in Project Lead the Way,” said Bertram. “I discovered, as a young principal, that students were dropping out of school simply because they were bored and school wasn’t relevant. I saw something really powerful.”
In 2011, Bertram took the lead position for the PLTW organization, with a goal to expand the program and transform education in the country. To date, roughly 300,000 students in 2,000 schools are impacted by Project Lead the Way programming this school year. The program is seeing tremendous growth and positive results from each district using it.
“We have teachers across the country that believe in this work and have created regional collaborations of this model,” said Bertram. “I think it’s that vision, from a regional perspective, that shows why this work really matters. It’s about amazing teachers. When we can put that combination together and provide relevant curriculum and professional development, we can do great things.”
Bertram said that the PLTW mission and goal is to make the program available to every student in America. Project Lead the Way promotes, according to Bertram, a great K-12 experience that, in turn, leads to a great adult life.
“The relevancy of what students are learning today matters for a lifetime,” said Bertram. “You don’t learn math so you can take a test. You learn math so you can solve real-world problems. You learn science to apply it in the real world. There is a greater purpose in all of this.”
When Rodrequez became superintendent in Grandview, he told his staff that if certain programs were available to students at one school, he wants those same programs available at all schools. The plan was to implement PLTW Launch for fifth graders at one school, and then expand and build it into other schools in the district.
“We want every one of our students to have the opportunity to be exposed to the Project Lead the Way modules,” said Rodrequez. “This is what we consider to be the best in education. The kids deserve that. They love it; it is engaging and teaches them a lot of different things that we can’t quantify in other areas.”
Rodrequez said that PLTW is working in the district thanks to the teachers who have embraced the programming. Recently, the Grandview School District was recognized by Project Lead the Way for offering STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) classes to all students in kindergarten through 12th grade. Grandview is one of 45 districts in the state to be designated a 100-percent access district by PLTW.