Los Fresnos adds science, math project

LOS FRESNOS — The Los Fresnos school district will implement Project Lead The Way’s curriculum for STEM learning from kindergarten through high school, beginning next year.

The district will begin teaching PLTW’s elementary school program, PLTW Launch, to all kindergarten through fifth-grade students. In addition, the PLTW curriculum for middle and high school will be available as an elective to all secondary students in the district, said Valarie Londrie, the executive director of academics.

Project Lead The Way is a non-profit corporation that develops curriculum to teach the STEM fields of science, technology, engineering and math to elementary, middle and high school students in ways that engage students and encourage them to become critical thinkers and problem solvers, the organization says on its website.

PLTW Launch, the elementary school program, recognizes that K-5 students “already have the qualities of great designers and innovators. What PLTW Launch does is tap into their exploratory nature, engage them in learning that feels like play, and encourage them to keep discovering — now and for years to come,” the organization says.

“PLTW has a long history of successfully engaging students in STEM subjects,” Londrie said. “We are really excited to be bringing this curriculum to our district.”

Londrie said the discussions that paved the way to PLTW started in a committee looking for ways to address college readiness issues. Members wanted to make sure Los Fresnos graduates were ready for the level of rigor required to do science and engineering at a four-year college or university. But Project Lead the Way also pays dividends for those going to a two-year community college or trade school, or straight to work, she said.

“There are STEM jobs that aren’t being filled nationally. The critical thinking skills (that STEM education fosters) are applicable to anything they do in life. … About a year ago our middle school principals began to say we need to do more. We identified STEM readiness,” started looking around for programs and found that PLTW was far and away the best, she said.

PLTW Launch consists of 24 modules, four per grade level, kindergarten through fifth-grade. Los Fresnos will start off with one module initially and add one module per grade level per year to reach full implementation three years from now.

PLTW Gateway will be offered as an elective to all middle school students. Middle school students may choose either the DMAR Pathway (Design, Modeling, Automation and Robotics) or Introduction to Computer Science. High school students may choose either the engineering or computer science pathway.

For secondary students the PLTW pathways will be offered as electives since students may also choose other routes such as the arts, health sciences and others.

Los Fresnos has never offered Project Lead The Way at any level, Londrie said. Now it will be the first district south of San Antonio to offer PLTW Launch in elementary school and among a select group to offer PLTW Gateway in middle school. Lots of high schools offer the curriculum, but to her knowledge just three middle schools in the Valley offer the Gateway program, Londrie said.

According to information on the PLTW Launch website, the program “immerses students in hands-on activities, projects that build upon each other and relate to the world around them. … Whether designing a car safety belt or building digital animations based on their own short stories, students engage in critical and creative thinking, build teamwork skills, and learn to try and try again when faced with challenges.”

The program builds on itself, so that eventually more students and more girls will be interested in the pathways that lead to engineering and computer science in high school. Londrie cited research that shows the gender gap in engineering and technology is well formed by high school. In 2014, only 3 percent of high school females reported an interest in engineering, compared to 31 percent of males, while 2 percent of girls and 15 percent of boys reported an interest in technology, according to the U.S. News & World Report/Raytheon STEM index. The index provides a national snapshot of STEM jobs and education. It has tracked STEM activity since 2000.

“Once we decided to go with Project Lead the Way we asked ourselves, why are our students not going into the STEM fields? There’s lots of jobs … and that was when we began to say we’ve got to catch them early. The program is a little bit pricey, so where do we come up with the money? As we learned more about PLTW we said our kids deserve it. We want a K-12 implementation. … Once we decided, it was up to us to figure out the logistics to put it in place, but we’re very excited.”

“I was an early childhood teacher,” Londrie added. “Young children are not afraid to fail. In engineering you have to fail to find the answer. … in engineering courses they have a problem, a real problem. They get to play with it a little bit to find the answer. We need to develop those problem-solving skills.

This summer, teachers and administrators throughout the district will receive the training to teach the curriculum K-12.