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Creating Seamless Pathways for STEM Students

Innovation Showcase

October 2010, Volume 5, Number7


How Project Lead the Way Helps Community Colleges Effectively Fulfill STEM Objectives

By Mike Carr

As technology becomes increasingly important in the 21st century, there is a growing need for students to obtain the knowledge and skills that will prepare them for careers requiring competency in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). In a world driven by technological change, students without a strong background in STEM are limiting their futures.

Because of the important role they play in educating tomorrow’s workforce, community colleges are a key element in bolstering the knowledge and skills of today’s students. Community colleges are answering the call for more effective STEM education by creating effective paths of study that provide young people with a seamless transition from high school to postsecondary education and beyond.

PLTWOne of the most successful secondary-level STEM programs, Project Lead The Way (PLTW), is being supported by a growing number of community colleges as a robust and well-proven curriculum that integrates effectively with their own paths of study. Through increased cooperation with PLTW high schools and engineering universities, a number of community colleges have expanded their own STEM offerings to provide students the comprehensive education they need for technology-oriented careers.

The need for better educated workers is already acute, according to Marion C. Blakely, president of the Aerospace Industries Association. “The long-term vitality of the U.S. aerospace workforce is a priority issue,” he says. “Our nation is not producing enough qualified workers to fill important jobs in U.S. aerospace companies, and the shortfall will increase as retirements grow in coming years. To maintain America’s leadership in the global aerospace marketplace in the 21st century, we must cultivate a highly skilled workforce of scientists, engineers, and other technical specialists critical to our national security, our economy, and the strength of our industrial base.”

Blakely’s call to action echoes similar warnings from other leaders in the fields of science, technology, and medicine, who see the same thing happening in their own realms. Fortunately, this alarming need has been recognized and is being addressed by an expanding emphasis on STEM at all educational levels.

Project Lead The Way was conceived in the early 1990s as a way to reverse the decline in students choosing engineering and technology-oriented careers. PLTW courses emphasize applied learning and help prepare students for life in the 21st century, whether or not they choose to work in technical fields. This hands-on approach gives students the opportunity to apply math and science concepts to a variety of real-world problems that are challenging and fun.

PLTW provides schools a comprehensive curriculum THAT has been developed jointly by K-12 educators, college faculty, and engineers. Gateway To Technology, the middle school program, features six independent, nine-week units. Pathway To Engineering, the high school curriculum, includes eight year-long classes. PLTW also offers a four-course program in biomedical sciences that includes a capstone class devoted to science research.

Because it is rigorous and relevant, PLTW is being enthusiastically embraced by students, teachers, administrators, counselors, school boards, and parents. Forward-looking leaders of postsecondary institutions have also recognized PLTW as an effective STEM program that brings more and better qualified students to their classrooms. In addition, engineering-related businesses realize its value and are playing a key role in the program’s success. A high level of cooperation among all these participants has produced some remarkable results—not only for students, but for the businesses and institutions as well.

In southeastern Wisconsin, Gateway Technical College (GTC) has actively promoted PLTW by working in concert with high schools, engineering businesses, and the four-year institutions many of their graduates attend. “Our faculty members have been leaders in PLTW from the very beginning,” says Bryan Albrecht, Gateway president. “Gateway instructors have integrated PLTW critical thinking skills into our own program to better align with the high school curriculum for college success. But the most beneficial aspect has been the great rapport developed between high school teachers and college instructors. They spend time with each other and build positive relationships to provide opportunities for our students.”

As division chair for engineering technology at Gateway, Pat Hoppe is active on the advisory boards for PLTW high schools in the GTC region and has helped foster increased cooperation. “Engineering faculty members from Gateway regularly visit the PLTW schools in our area,” he says. “This practice has been in place since the first high school in our district adopted the curriculum. All of the PLTW high school courses transfer directly into our associate degree programs: biomedical engineering technology, civil engineering technology, electrical engineering technology, and mechanical design technology.”

Gateway has also created a seamless pathway for graduates who want to pursue advanced study at Milwaukee School of Engineering (MSOE) or Marquette University. “We have a 2 + 2 transfer agreement with MSOE in electrical engineering technology,” Hoppe says, “as well as a 2 + 3 transfer agreement with Marquette in biomedical, civil, and electrical engineering. We bring in professors from both universities each year so that our students can learn firsthand what they have to offer.”

Student achievement at GTC has been noticeably higher because of PLTW. “PLTW students in our engineering technology programs typically earn high grades their first semester,” Hoppe notes. “This is directly related to their knowledge of the material from their high school courses. It is also a result of their commitment to a particular area of study, because PLTW students know what they’re getting into when they continue on to college. Because they’re better equipped to succeed, the retention rate for PLTW students in our electronics program is substantially higher than non-PLTW students.”

No state has more fully realized the potential of PLTW than Iowa. For a number of years, educators at all levels in the Hawkeye state have been proactive in implementing PLTW in a growing number of schools and creating beneficial partnerships to produce more STEM graduates. These educational investments are already paying significant dividends. The spirit of cooperation between Iowa high schools, businesses, community colleges, and universities is remarkable, making it a model for other states to emulate.

“The key to the success of PLTW in Iowa has been the unique support team we have developed,” says Dr. David Rethwisch, affiliate director of PLTW in Iowa and professor of chemical and biochemical engineering at the University of Iowa. “This collaboration includes the Iowa Department of Education and Department of Economic Development, as well as our 15 community colleges and three regent universities – Iowa, Iowa State, and Northern Iowa. Our steering committee also includes the Kern Family Foundation and a number of private companies that are supporting the program, including Rockwell Collins, John Deere, and the Pella Corporation.”

In Iowa, all of these players function within an integrated framework that features an extraordinary level of cooperation. “The Department of Education plays a vital role by providing leadership for the program and ensuring that teacher credentials are appropriate for the PLTW training the instructors receive,” Rethwisch explains. “The regent universities take the lead in providing professional development for middle and high school teachers by hosting the PLTW Core Training Institutes, as well as teacher workshops and an annual counselor’s conference.

“By leveraging their already strong contacts with local secondary schools, community colleges are especially valuable in implementing the program and hosting some PLTW classes. They also offer professional development opportunities for teachers and, through concurrent enrollment, provide a funding stream to the high schools that helps sustain the program. Finally, the Department of Economic Development, the Kern Family Foundation, and private companies provide funding to individual schools and actively support development of a larger STEM workforce for the state of Iowa.”

Iowa’s community college presidents are strong advocates for high-quality STEM education. In 2007, they made a joint decision to use a $1 million grant they had received from the Department of Economic Development to support PLTW implementation in Iowa high schools. To further bolster the effort, the colleges provided matching funds of $900,000 and the Kern Family Foundation contributed $1.2 million, bringing the total to $3.1 million. The fund provided 60 grants of $50,000 per site for schools to implement PLTW’s Pathway to Engineering curriculum and 20 awards of $5,000 per site to establish PLTW’s biotechnical engineering program. This exemplifies the community college commitment to collaboration and partnership with the secondary system that has resulted in greater numbers of well-prepared students and more pathways into their programs.

To illustrate these positive outcomes, consider Kirkwood Community College (KCC), which has been a proponent for STEM education and workforce development in the Cedar Rapids area. KCC serves seven counties in eastern Iowa and has aggressively partnered with PLTW high schools, which has resulted in an 87 percent increase in Kirkwood’s STEM enrollment and a 74 percent increase in its STEM graduates.

PLTW course credits can be applied to several Career Technical STEM programs at Kirkwood and qualifying grades allow these credits to be applied to programs of study leading to a Bachelor's degree in engineering at the regent universities. This seamless pathway maintains the rigor required by postsecondary partners, but also provides the incentives and clarity that encourage more STEM participation by students. In fact, in 2009 more than 700 PLTW students were awarded KCC credit, with 53 percent qualifying for transferable credit beyond the community college. To ensure that its graduates can transfer to four-year institutions, Kirkwood has developed 83 STEM programs of study for enrollment at nine area colleges and universities.

“Since 2006, 25 of our area’s 33 school districts have implemented the PLTW program,” says Todd Prusha, dean for secondary programs. “With input from local high school educators and financial support from a National Science Foundation STEP grant and Rockwell Collins, Engineering Career Academies were established at two Cedar Rapids high schools in 2003. Within several years, the PLTW curriculum was adopted. The popularity of this successful program has been contagious and today there are 1,056 students taking classes at 18 sites.”

Two of those locations are collaborative programs of particular interest, Prusha notes. “The Jones Regional Education Center is a partnership involving Kirkwood, community partners, and eight rural school districts created to enhance educational opportunities, strengthen economic development, and build a better workforce. PLTW courses are popular among the students there. The other site is a result of collaboration between Kirkwood and one private and two public high schools, where Rockwell Collins hosts classes at its facility for students from those three schools.”

A closer look at how much attention Kirkwood devotes to its program shows why it has been so successful in developing a pipeline of incoming STEM students. “All seven counties have a Kirkwood Center with a county director who provides administrative and educational leadership, program coordination, and student support for college credit courses,” Prusha explains. “Each of the 41 high schools within our service area is assigned to a county director. That individual serves as the liaison between those schools and our administrators to facilitate productive relationships and serve the best interests of students.”

According to Prusha, the county director and other Kirkwood administrators work with high school principals, counselors, and instructors regarding PLTW courses to be offered, qualification of potential faculty, course promotion to students, student applications to the college, course registration, course monitoring, and student support services. For longer term planning, the dean of Distance Learning and Secondary Programs collaborates with school district superintendents to study areas of need, as well as provides guidance on program and partnership development and implementation.

Like many other educators who see how PLTW students thrive, Rob Denson, president of Des Moines Area Community College, is a strong believer in the effectiveness of the program. “If we are to be successful during changing and challenging times, it is critical that all of our educational systems endorse and incorporate STEM initiatives such as PLTW in the curriculum. Iowa has done this because we know that such initiatives can only succeed if secondary and postsecondary institutions partner to make these experiences available to students in a very meaningful way and at the earliest age. Students with a solid STEM educational experience can go anywhere and excel, regardless of their eventual career goal. ‘Priceless’ is an appropriate descriptor.”

For more information on Project Lead The Way, go online to www.pltw.org or contact Jessica Saskowicz at jsaskowicz@pltw.org.

Mike Carr is communications consultant for Kern Family Foundation.


Posted by The League for Innovation in the Community College on 10/07/2010 at 11:13 AM | Categories: Innovation Showcase -