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Dr. Mariappan Jawaharlal

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PLTW -- Leading the Way in STEM Education

Posted: 07/27/11 07:33 PM ET

What inspired me to write this blog is what I saw at a local high school. Mr. Mike Martin, a technology teacher at Martin Luther King (MLK) High School, located in Riverside, CA invited me to his classroom to see his graduating seniors' student projects. I have been involved in K-12 outreach programs for over 15 years and visited hundreds of K-12 schools across the country. Visiting schools has become such a ritual that I wasn't too thrilled about going to MLK. The only reason I went was because my dean and associate dean were going. In any case, what I saw that day blew my mind.

MLK High School students working in teams, both boys and girls, designed, built and demonstrated various products ranging from a simple bicycle holding device to a complex automation project involving robots. These were not theoretical poster presentations, but actual working prototypes. In addition, there were architectural projects, one of them with a beautiful model complete with detailed drawings. These students were eager to show and share what they have accomplished. They were highly professional and behaved like true engineers. Before this, I have never seen so many high school students excited about engineering. I found that almost all of them were going to four-year engineering college. A few remaining students were planning to go to community colleges and transfer to a four-year college later. The national average for high school students choosing engineering is under 8 percent and what I witnessed was almost 100 percent. How could this be? Mr. Martin is a dedicated teacher, not Superman.

A bit more investigation revealed that Mr. Martin has been teaching courses offered through a STEM organization called Project Lead the Way (PLTW). A few years ago, when I first came to know about PLTW, I didn't see any difference between PLTW and home-grown tech programs offered at some high schools. I have seen far too many such tech programs appear and disappear in many high schools. But what I witnessed at MLK was different. I found that Mr. Martin has been teaching PLWT courses for 11 years. PLTW courses are offered to all high school students and it is recommended that students take at least one course per year, allowing students to take as many as 4 to 5 engineering courses in high school. Mr. Martin, during this period, had taught about 1,000 seniors of which a little over 100 took all PLTW courses during their four years in high school. What astonished me was the fact that of the 100 students who went through PLTW program, 90 of them chose engineering -- that is a whopping 90 percent. These are students showing not just interest in engineering but choosing engineering as a career based on experience, sound judgment and excitement about innovation and entrepreneurship.

Like all engineering educators, I have been frustrated by the quality of freshmen students coming to engineering programs and have watched them change majors from engineering to business and communication in just the first year. Few students come to engineering well prepared. PLTW students are not only well prepared but have already been introduced to basic engineering concepts and are ready to hit the ground running. With PLTW programs growing in local schools the quality of high school students entering college seems to be changing for good.

The strength of PLTW lies in the fact that it has a fully developed curriculum incorporating hands-on experience and a well structured training program for teachers. Even more importantly, PLTW requires an agreement with the school district in order to work with even one classroom in one school in the entire district. While this seems to create problems for a school or teacher who is very keen on starting such a program in his or her classroom, it is clear that no serious program can survive without the support from school districts. By bringing school districts on board early on and requiring them to invest, PLTW has made their program sustainable.

PLTW conducts a rigorous two-week summer training program for school teachers. Not too long ago I was an attendee in one of their training programs along with some high school teachers. I signed up for their training just to check it out and have a good time. But this training was very different from all other trainings I had attended. Here, they made me to work every day from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. followed by home work, which we did in teams. We often worked past midnight including weekends. While two weeks were too short to prepare someone for a year-long course, it was comprehensive and enough for the teachers to go back to their classrooms.

PLTW program was developed based on a program created by Richard Blais, an educator at an upstate New York school a quarter century ago. PLTW launched its engineering program in 1997 and has now reached over 13,000 teachers, and 350,000 students at nearly 4,000 schools. Numerous studies have indicated that PLTW students are not only going to four-year colleges, but outperform other students. More importantly, 31% of PLTW students study engineering compared to the 8% national average.

The STEM challenge facing our nation is very serious and does not have a magical solution. There are many STEM programs but the impact of all these programs on the national scene is still unclear. PLTW is expected to reach over a million students by 2016. In terms of the number of students and schools participating, PLTW is easily the largest STEM education provider in the nation. Among all the major STEM initiatives, PLTW seems to be leading the way.