Leading the way

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By Donna Williamson
Opelika Observer

Project Lead The Way (PLTW) is a nonprofit organization that develops science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) curricula for grades K-12. PLTW is used in over 6,500 schools across the United States.
According to Kyle Pinckard, Opelika City Schools Secondary Education/Career Technical Education Director, PLTW offers a variety of curriculums that relate to different STEM fields such as biomedical sciences and computer science. Opelika High School originally started offering PLTW engineering courses through its construction program; however, now the focus is on the engineering aspects of construction.
The new 3-D printers at Opelika High School and Opelika Middle School are housed in the PLTW courses. “The curriculum at both schools has students learning about the design process. Part of this is sketching and Computer Aided Drafting (CAD) design,” Pinckard explained. “Students can now take a sketch they have drawn and modeled in AutoDesk (CAD software) send it to the printer and have it created. The goal is to provide students with opportunities to see how the skills they are learning in class relate to situations outside of school.”
The PLTW curriculum in Opelika City Schools is focused predominately on engineering. However, Pinckard stressed, “It is not only for students interested in engineering. The goal is to give students opportunities to problem solve using the tools and techniques of a 21st century learner, to produce students who don’t know all the answers but possess the ability to think through problems and find solutions.”
OMS, Carver Primary School and Morris Avenue Intermediate School have completed their first year with PLTW. West Forest Intermediate School will implement the program during the 2015-2016 school year.  “Implementation at each school looks different because the curriculum is set up to be flexible to the needs of the school,” Pinckard said. “At the elementary level PLTW does not replace the current curriculum. It enhances the standards already being taught with hands-on activities.”
One of Pinckard’s favorite examples of PLTW at work took place at Carver Primary School in Ms. Loftin’s Kindergarten class. “Students were working on the Structure and Function module, which had the students read and discuss ‘The Three Little Pigs.’ Then students were asked to design a house that could not be blown down by the ‘Big Bad Wolf.’ Students were given either sponges, toothpicks, or popsicle sticks to build their house,” Pinckard explained.
“One pair of students worked hard, building their house with sponges and glue. They tested it multiple times by blowing on it to ensure that their design would stand up to the ‘Big Bad Wolf.’ Each time they tested it, their confidence grew. When it was their time to have the teacher blow on their house with the hairdryer (Big Bad Wolf) for the final test, it fell down,” Pinckard said. “I was sure that these two students were going to start crying. However, one of them turned to the other and said, ‘Let’s go make it stronger.’  These students did not see their failure as a place to stop, but as a place to start.”
This is what Pinckard wants for all students when they leave Opelika City Schools. “Everyone will fail at something and it is those people who continually learn from their failures who will eventually succeed,” he said.
Enrollment in the PLTW courses at OMS this year went from 54 to 65 students. Pinckard said, “We are excited about this because of those 65, there are nine freshmen girls who have expressed an interest in PLTW courses. Enrolling females into courses that are usually dominated by males is exciting because we are trying to help close the gender gap in STEM education and jobs.”
By participating in PLTW students begin to understand how their education is relevant to their lives and future careers through hands-on learning and real-world problem solving. “No matter what age or grade, we want students who graduate from Opelika to be equipped with a set of skills that will prepare them for the next stage of their lives,” Pinckard said.

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