New engineering program deemed a success by FHSD officials and students
By: Michael R. Smith
Francis Howell School District officials heard a report at its recent board meeting that the district’s STEM program, Project Lead the Way, has been a successful and popular course addition with high school students.
STEM is an acronym for Science Technology Engineering Math studies. Nationwide, STEM programs seek to improve students’ knowledge and understanding in technical studies. Typically, the programs rely heavily on a practical, hands-on approach through projects which supplement book instruction.
In the district, STEM instruction is offered through four-day summer camps for elementary students. The district’s five middle schools offer an introductory engineering course. In 2010, the district began high school STEM courses through Project Lead the Way — or as district officials call it, PLTW.
Each of the district’s high schools offer PLTW, which began in the 2010-11 school year.
PLTW began that year as an elective study with one honors-level course: Introduction to Engineering. A second course, Principles of Engineering, began in the current school year. For 2012-13, the district will offer a third class, Digital Electronics.
Eventually, the program should be a four-year, pre-engineering course of study, said Bryan Williams, the district’s director of assessment and program development.
Williams was involved in the creation of PLTW and said that it offers some students “another element in their course offerings.” Because PLTW is an elective program and students must apply to it, they must work closely with counselors early to fit it into their overall course load, he said.
Besides giving students a practical introduction to engineering, the courses may also transfer for collect credit. Currently, 40 universities such as Missouri University of Science and Technology in Rolla accept PLTW courses for college credit.
PLTW promotion begins in the district’s middle schools in all three grades, and eighth-grade students can elect a semester pre-engineering course. Williams believes that early promotion is why PLTW has taken off in the high schools.
Currently, 276 Francis Howell high school students are enrolled in PLTW. School officials say the current courses have been popular among students and that as word got out about them, interest has exploded. PLTW enrollment for next year has nearly doubled to 536 students.
Of those 536 high-schoolers about17 percent, or 91 students, are girls.
Francis Howell North High Schoolsenior Nicole Yuede is currently taking the PLTW course, Introduction to engineering. In a PLTW presentation at the school board’s February meeting she explained why she and other students enjoy PLTW. “It’s hands-on. It’s practical.”
Francis Howell North sophomore Mike Kuhl echoed Yuede’s comments. He is in the Principles of Engineering course. “It’s now my favorite class,” he said.
Kuhl described to school board members one of the projects he had completed with another FHN sophomore, Nathan Mills. The students built a machine which automatically moves marbles made from different materials into various bins. The students said that the engineering principles they learned helped them build the marble sorter.
“I knew I possibly wanted to be an engineer,” Mills said. “This has helped me better understand engineering.”
Before taking the PLTW class Mills said he had been considering pursuing a college program in engineering and that what he’s accomplished through PLTW confirmed his decision.
For board vice-president Stephen Johnson those were good words to hear because he said that was one of the district’s goals when it created PLTW. The students’ comments, he said, speak “a lot for the commitment of the district. It’s a great reflection on the district.”
Even when students decide not to pursue engineering after high school, Johnson said, the program works because it saves students time, effort, and financial investment in college.
FHN senior Yuede agreed. “I didn’t want to get into a college like (Missouri University of Science and Technology) and not know what I was getting into.” She said that she enjoys her introductory engineering course but it has caused her to rethink her university major. Now, she knows that engineering is not what she wants to pursue.
In introducing the student’s presentation to the board, Francis HowellCentral PLTWinstructor Don Barnes praised it for adding the program. Barnes is one of four instructors teaching PLTW classes.
“I am thankful to the district for starting Project Lead the Way,” he said. “I see the enthusiasm from the students. It’s awesome.”
He also said that he has benefited from PLTW: “It has rejuvenated my career. I love it.”
Williams said that in order to be certified to teach courses educators must undergo two weeks of summer study at the college level. Missouri University of Science and Technology, for example, is one college offering the certification.
Williams said some of the program’s initial costs have been covered by corporations and organizations which want to promote STEM programs and offer financial grants to schools without requiring reimbursement.
Established programs may not receive the same level of grant funding, but the district will continue to seek grants, he said.