Project Lead The Way (PLTW) is transforming the classroom experience for students. Since 1997, PLTW has grown from a high school engineering program to offering comprehensive PreK-12 pathways in computer science, engineering, and biomedical science. The organization empowers students to solve real-world challenges; and inspires them to reimagine how they see themselves.
Additionally, PLTW has become America’s leading professional development resource, training roughly 12,000 teachers annually through its core training programs.
I spoke to David Greer, the Chief Programs Officer at Project Lead the Way, at our national Make48 event in Wichita, Kansas. David leads PLTW’s Programs team of world class curriculum developers, professional development experts, media and production team, and assessment team. As a STEM expert, David spent the weekend with Make48, mentoring the contestants and watching the competition unfold as teams had to create a brand new STEAM toy in 48 hours.
How have you enjoyed the Make48 challenge so far?
This is right in my wheelhouse. I’ve spent many years in higher education doing research and in the PreK-12 space to really get people excited about what's possible. When you look at environments like Make48, where you have these teams that are presented with a difficult challenge with a short turnaround, to not only ideate and innovate and create, but to do and to demonstrate, it takes not only technical skills but also those transportable skills like collaboration, critical thinking, problem solving to really create something special. Then Make48 layers on the entrepreneurial perspective, which I think is critically important for all of us as well.
How would you encourage students to get into Stem-related activities ie: Project Lead The Way?
We really address Stem education from every different angle and direction. We start as early as PreK and go all the way to 12th grade. We like to say students ‘can't be what they can't see’ so we show them not just the fun that's in science, but how it applies to careers and the world around them.
Project Lead The Way focuses on pathways in computer science, biomedical science, and engineering (from PreK all the way to 12th). Then as we bring those topics into the classroom, we bring the relevance in with them.
Everything that we do is intentionally attached to real-world situations and scenarios. Then we also work deeply with industry partners to make sure that we are using the latest tools and techniques, software and hardware that they use in industry today, and really expose our students to those tools as early as possible so they can see how these technologies work and be prepared if they so choose to go to college or career and be ready to go essentially day one.
Everything is hands-on, project based. We like to have our teachers be facilitators of learning, not lecturers of learning. They go on the journey with their students. As students start the curriculum, they begin with structured activities that help the students acquire the technical knowledge and skills for that subject area.
As they move through the curriculum, they go into more projects, which are a little more ill-structured, where they can apply some of the knowledge and skills they've learned to a defined project.
Then they go into the open-ended problem part of the curriculum. Students choose what they're passionate about, and then apply all the knowledge and skills they've learned to solve a problem. It's a great way, I believe, for us to bring that relevance, interest and engagement. Not just to the students, but to our teachers as well. It's just a different way to approach teaching and learning.
If you're not used to that facilitator role, it can be a little intimidating at first. But as teachers start the journey, they go along with their students. It's amazing how much they light up. They are just as engaged and excited about how the students are learning and how they can really help them learn, in ways they never thought they could. Instead of just sitting there memorizing, students are actually doing.
I think that’s how we all learn. PLTW structures our curriculum to make sure that it's not only relevant and connected, but it's also rigorous. We want to challenge our students. When we created the Pre-K curriculum (in computer science, engineering, biomedical science) some said that it is way too early to have these complicated topics. But we just didn't believe that. We think that if you present these opportunities to students, they're going to rise and exceed every expectation. And we were proven right. Students are going to persevere, problem solve, be creative and they're going to collaborate. And they're going to use those, we call them “transportable skills”, that are critical for not only their success in education, but in career and in life in general.
What are the benefits for both the teachers and the students?
I think it's engagement and inspiration for the students. I’ve said this before, “students can't be what they can't see”, and giving them the opportunity to see themselves in our curriculum and possible careers is really important.
There's a lot of data that shows that as early as second and third-grade young ladies and minority students are self-selecting out of math and science, and there's no reason for that. Everyone is good at math and science when you start. We just have to provide that support, excitement, engagement, relevance, and that inspiration for them to say that, hey, I can do this.
And you can't create that by starting in higher education or even in high school. You have to create that by starting as early as possible. Getting Pre-K and elementary students interested and excited early about Stem fields, degrees, and careers helps get them really engaged and supported through those core areas in math, science, engineering and mathematics.
As I said before, there's a light that kind of goes on our teachers eyes as they get to witness the impact it has on their students. It’s a different way to approach teaching. I think Make48 is another great example of this as well. I can talk about it all day, but until you go in and see it yourself, that's what sells it. Once you see it, you'll ask yourself why doesn’t every kid in America have the opportunity to learn this way?
I think it's not just what we do at Project Lead the Way, but it's the approach to teaching and learning. It's the approach to supporting teachers, the approach to bring relevance and engagement, excitement and interest with the latest technologies, but with accessible and equitable on ramps into these experiences for every student, not just some students. And that's our mission at Project Lead The Way, to provide these world-class, highly impactful career learning experiences for every student in America.
PLTW can be found in any schools (public or private) at any time?
Absolutely, and that’s actually one of our main goals. One of our North Star goals is to reach those schools that need us the most. That's not easy, but it's something that we do and we do very well. As we grow, we know we can grow in certain areas, in certain communities because there's always that support, but how do we get to those other communities that don't have the resources others have access to? We push ourselves every day to continue to innovate and find ways to reach every student in America.
We have great partners in industry, in higher education and school districts across the country. Historically, we have not done internal research on our own products and impact outcomes, but we have great partners that believe in us, like higher education institutions and other community organizations that have done these longitudinal studies over years.
As we have grown over the last 25 years as an organization, we've been really thoughtful on how we can deepen these types of relationships and build currency for our students for what is next after high school. And what's next is not always College. It's a career as well. We have a very committed and passionate group of industry partners that have really helped support the growth of PLTW to schools districts all over the country.
Many of our industry partners say to us quite frequently that if they can get access to PLTW students, we'll hire them. They have the skills that we're looking for, not just the technical knowledge, because we can train that. But the ‘transportable skills’ (critical thinking, collaboration, problem solving & ethical reasoning) that are really important for someone to be successful as a team member in these organizations.
It’s been a great journey for us. Everything we do, we do it in a way that is aligned to what is best for our students. If we’re building an engineering course, we bring in industry professionals and experts in their fields. We want to make sure that we’re providing an experience that's not only relevant, but also that is creating the workforce we all need once they move out of high school.
What's the best way to get children and your students or somebody's kids to get into STEM in general.
You can’t just have those moments that we call random acts of Stem. So it's this one and done moments where you come in, you're wowed. You have to have that kind of hook for students to see, but also provide continuous experiences and support after that initial moment. Parents play a big role in that as well. Having experiences like the Make48 events where you can come, see and understand how everything works is really important, but we also need to connect those experiences to curriculum and outcomes that maintain students' excitement and engagement. For example, we're looking at how we can leverage technology to provide students more access to experiences through VR/augmented reality or leveraging the concept of the Metaverse to immerse students in places they could never go to normally in their community.
So if they wanted to go to an oil rig in the middle of the ocean, we could do that virtually. They can see what it’s like in an Amazon warehouse, and see how that actually works through automation and robots, going around, moving things around, instead of physically being there.
But how do you do that for every student? So those are the things we really look at. STEM is for everyone and it is everywhere around us. An engineer designed the chair we’re sitting in, and someone built it. Someone else marketed it, and someone priced it. There's all these skills that go into everything that's around us.
I always used to tell my kids as we drove to school when they were young, I wonder who built this bridge and why they built it this way? Why is it this long? Why isn’t it a suspension bridge like in San Francisco? It's all around us.
How inspiring is your job?
It's a mission that's not hard to get behind, I love working on Project Lead The Way. Everyone that works at PLTW has a shared mission to get the best quality experience to every student and every teacher in America. It's fun to wake up every day and know that you're impacting millions of students and tens of thousands of teachers, and we're just at the tip of the iceberg.
We find their mission and vision inspiring to say the least and really enjoyed having David at our Nationals competition. To learn even more, visit https://www.pltw.org/