Through the national program Project Lead the Way, El Segundo Middle School and High School students are receiving innovative education in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) curricular programs that are being used in middle and high schools across the nation. “The high school has their Project Lead the Way program and they actually have a full engineering sequence of courses that they can take similar to college courses if you were to major in engineering,” El Segundo Middle School Principal Dr. Jack Plotkin said. “Starting two years ago, we began to offer those courses to our seventh and eighth graders as zero period class--and it’s an engineering focused, problem-based learning program. Students will look at some type of problem, like a train having to go through a mountainside, and they will have to engineer a tunnel using software to show their understanding.”
Currently, El Segundo Middle School has 30 students registered for zero period at 6:40 a.m. at which time they go to El Segundo High to meet with math and science teacher Steve Eno. Eno, who was at Raytheon’s Engineering Games earlier this year with a few of his students, is excited about the program and the positive impact it can have on the students. “It is great in terms of getting kids prepared for the high school program. With the kids that start in the middle school that come to the high school freshman class, you notice the difference in their ability to handle the class,” Eno said. “I thought it would be too early for some of the middle school students, but surprisingly they are always there excited and ready to go. They love it and they have a blast.”
Through its hands-on, project-based engineering courses, the program attempts to engage students on multiple levels by exposing them to areas of study that a middle school or high school student would not typically pursue by being enrolled in a traditional math or science class. Through exposure to such courses, the program seeks to provide students with a strong foundation if they decide to take the path to college in search of an engineering-based career.
The curriculum, delivered through PLTW’s Virtual Academy, is provided free of charge to schools that register with PLTW. However, the classroom equipment and teacher training, which are both a requirement, are not free and are usually the main costs associated with the program. At El Segundo High School, Chevron donated the money to get the program started and the Middle School joined a year later. “We would love to run it here, but we don’t have the space for the equipment,” Plotkin said. “So they [students] sign a permission slip and get going. That gives them a head start if they decide on an engineering pathway. It is motivating and a lot of the kids love it because it is so hands-on. That is great for the kids who don’t do so well in the traditional classroom where I would just be talking to you. It provides an opportunity for the kids to engage in deep thinking and problem solving that mirrors what students would have to do on the job.”
The application of math and science concepts to everyday activities is one of the elements of the program that Eno and Plotkin appreciate and consider to be of much benefit to their students. “This really gives the students a chance to take what they are learning in their math and science classes and really apply it,” Eno said. “Most classes give students a project here or there. With the Project Lead the Way courses, students are seeing what they learn every day that they are working on projects. They are using math and using science to accomplish a task and solve problems. They do this daily and they can see how they can use an engineering career the rest of their lives. The early exposure allows students to know if engineering is a path that they want to follow or if they want to go another route.”
With such a strong focus on STEM education across the country, students are becoming better prepared for the high-tech and high-skilled global economy. However, the benefits of these courses extend beyond math and science. Students learn to create, design, build, discover, collaborate and solve problems by applying what they learn in math and science. “All the job opportunities in engineering are based on computer skills and engineering skills that you have. That is what this program does--it prepares them,” Eno said. “They [students] are learning to use these science concepts and skills to solve major problems. By going into the Project Lead the Way, students are obtaining a huge advantage in terms of college and professional careers because they are learning the skills that will be needed.”
In addition, exposing students to STEM fields allows them to come in direct contact with professionals from local industries who serve as a strong example of real-world aspects of the curriculum through mentorships and their own workplace experiences. “Regardless of whether you are into engineering or not, sometimes you have a problem and you have to work together in a team to solve it,” Plotkin said. “That really mirrors the real world for kids. Just the exposure through design thinking to engineering gives the kids the mental framework they need for problem solving as a whole. If we can create good problem solvers and students who can work well with others and communicate and are reflective and thoughtful, that is what companies need. They don’t need students who are receptive, passive learners who need direction.”