University of South Carolina

Leading in STEM education at USC

By Steven Powell, spowell2@mailbox.sc.edu, 803-777-1923

Over the past decade, a program to develop engineering talent in middle and high schools has grown from a small, grass-roots effort into a highly successful nationwide curriculum. Called Project Lead the Way (PLTW), the program now counts the University of South Carolina as one of its three largest training centers in the country, with some 300 secondary school teachers taking training courses at USC this summer.

Making the modelsThe goal of PLTW is to immerse students in engineering early, so they can make informed choices in the relatively low-cost, low-pressure environment that precedes undergraduate matriculation.

“It’s the kind of program that I wish I could have experienced when I was that age,” said Todd Wallace, a high school teacher from Lawton, Okla. “It would have made my engineering and college experience a lot easier.”

Working as a PLTW teacher since 2008, Wallace has trained in Iowa, Texas and Pennsylvania, and he is now training at USC to teach Principles of Engineering. “When students come through these high school courses they know whether or not they want to be an engineer – which is incredibly wonderful for parents. The program allows them to actually do the work, which is beneficial educationally as well as easier on the checkbook.” 

The teacher’s training classes are taught by master teachers, such as Lola Whitworth of Dutch Fork Middle School. She’s been with PLTW for 14 years, nearly as long as the program has existed.

“From all the engineering programs that I’ve had a chance to look at, it is hands-down the most rigorous program for students,” said Whitworth. “After teaching PLTW for two years, I did some data collection, and the first year was just unreal. Our math scores improved about 20 percent in the sixth grade, about 10 percent in seventh grade, and about 12 percent in 12th grade.”

“A lot of people said, well, you just brought in students who really wanted to take it, and what was so great about our data collection was that we didn’t – they were just chosen randomly on a computer.”

The training program, based in the College of Engineering and Computing, is overseen by director Donn Griffith and affiliate assistant Krystal DuBose.

“There are three really large training centers in the country now, the Rochester Institute of Technology, Purdue and USC,” said Griffith. “It’s grown quickly in the past 10 years. When we started training teachers in 2003, we had just three courses. Now we have 29.”

Two teachers2The courses are broken into two categories: partial-semester-unit Gateway courses for middle school, and semester- and year-long classes for high school. Karen Henderson of Kansas City is master teacher for the two-week training session that prepares teachers for the year-long Principles of Engineering high school course, which has a national exam at the end of the year, similar to an AP exam.

Henderson sees the PLTW model, where there is always a connection between teaching concepts and working on practical projects that make the concepts come to life, as a key to the program’s success.

“Students ask a lot, ‘Why do we need to know this math?’ ” Henderson said. “And with PLTW, I don’t have to contrive an answer. We’re going to build this ping pong ball launcher, and in order for you to hit the other team, you’re going to have to make sure that whether that team’s 2 feet away or 15 feet away, you know how to calculate the range you need, which means you know how to calculate the angle.

“And that means, I need to know how to do all that math.”

Henderson also sees the middle school programs as making real inroads in better diversifying the profession. “Girls decide when they’re so little what they want to be when they grow up. Sometimes it’s OK for a boy not to figure out until college what he’s going to be, but it bothers girls – they need a plan,” said Henderson. “So this gives them an opportunity – if we can grab those girls while they’re young, we have a much better shot of getting women in the field.”

And PLTW students are eminently prepared for their university engineering curriculum. “Many of my students come back from college and say, ‘We didn’t do anything in our intro engineering class that I didn’t already know,’” said Henderson. “That’s just powerful.”

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Posted: 06/12/13 @ 4:00 AM | Updated: 06/11/13 @ 2:09 PM | Permalink