Chesterton Tribune



Teachers: Project Lead the Way increasing student engagement

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Administrators at the Duneland School Corporation have been raving about Project Lead the Way (PLTW) at public meetings and information sessions, and students in grades K-8 have given presentations to the School Board members to demonstrate their new knowledge gained from the program.

Project Lead the Way, Inc., is an Indianapolis-based non-profit organization that develops K-12 learning modules based on real-life problems in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM). Teachers at PLTW schools can apply any of four modules at each grade level. There are two engineering modules, one biomedical module, and one computer science module at each levelÑeach one focused on activity, project, and problem-based (AFB) instruction.

According to, the APB model, “scaffolds student learning through structured activities and projects that empower students to become independent in the classroom and help them build skill sets to apply to an open-ended design problem.”

Teachers can incorporate PLTW modules into existing lesson plans and have some leeway in how they present the material.

In March, Jackson Elementary School and Chesterton Middle School were named distinguished PLTW schools for having more than 75 percent of students participating and offering at least two PLTW modules at each grade level. From more than 11,500 participating schools in the United States, Jackson was one of only 214 elementary schools to receive distinguished status, and CMS one of only 148.

What is PLTW like at Duneland, and what are the teachers who use PLTW modules observing among students? The Chesterton Tribune reached out to three Duneland teachers to find out.

What do Students do?

Amanda Fronczak, Kindergarten teacher at Jackson Elementary School, teaches two modules: “Structure and Function: Exploring Design,” and “Pushes and Pulls.”

Fronczak said her students learn about design by hearing the story of the three little pigs as a jumping off point to learning how and why certain structures are stronger than others. For the “Pushes and Pulls” module, they learn about gravity, force, and friction.

“In both modules students become engineers as they adopt a design-thinking mindset to solve a problem,” Fronczak said. “For example, students have to design and build one of the three Little Pigs’ houses out of various materials that can withstand the Big Bad Wolf (a leaf blower with a plush wolf attached) after gaining background knowledge about engineers, structures, and functions.”

Stacy Vesling, fourth grade teacher at Jackson, said her students have worked on the “Energy: Collisions” and “Input/Output: Human Brain” modules.

“Each module focuses heavily on the engineering design process and interactive group activities, which encourage students to acquire knowledge through hands-on experiences,” Vesling said. “In addition, it teaches students that there are many ways to solve a problem and that true learning is in the process, not simply responding with ‘one right answer.’”

Vesling said PLTW is technology-based, and students use their school-issued iPads a lot. “This technology component is quite appealing to today’s learner,” she said.

In the “Human Brain” module, a team of Vesling’s students planned and created a video to educate other students about concussions.

Toni Biancardi, computer technology teacher at Chesterton Middle School, said her students focus on computer science and coding through the middle-school level PLTW modules.

“Students engage in physical computing, using software to write programs and hardware to build devices that enable their program to interact with the world around them,” Biancardi said.

How is PLTW different?

“During a PLTW module, our students are captivated the entire day from 8 a.m. until 2 p.m. with the topic at hand, whether it is math, reading, or recess. PLTW isn’t a segregated subject; it becomes a way of thinking and interacting with content during the two weeks our class is engaged in the module,” Fronczak said.

Fronczak said PLTW gives students early exposure to team work--and failureÑwhen they have to work together to rebuild or redesign a project that didn’t work on the first try. It also puts students more in control. “The teacher becomes a facilitator instead of an instructor as students have a greater role in the direction of their learning,” she said.

Fronczak’s Kindergarteners have advanced to using their iPads to take photos, record slo-mo videos, make iMovies, and airdrop graphic organizers to demonstrate their knowledge. A group of them talked about their three little pigs structures at a School Board meeting last year.

Vesling said the main difference between PLTW and a normal curriculum is the problem-based activities that build on one another and require skills in several subject areas. “There is a cross-curricular component to PLTW that doesn’t always exist in other subject areas. To solve the problem, the students must integrate reading, math, science, and computer science skills.”

“Passive learning is not an option,” Vesling added.

Biancardi thought the same way. “What I really like about the curriculum is that it introduces the content and gives the students the foundation to be successful, then it moves into practice and finally into performance.”

“Each step of the way they become more in control of the learning and outcomes,” Biancardi said.

Has PLTW increased student engagement?

Fronczak said PLTW has increased student engagement--and that her kindergarteners look at the world differently after a module.

“Kindergarteners are pointing out various forces on the playground at recess. Parents are reporting that their children are discussing gravity and engineering at the dinner table,” she said. “They are even bringing items from home that they designed and built after being inspired after a PLTW build. PLTW develops a contagious love for science, and students realize that the world around them is their classroom, not just our four walls.”

Vesling also spoke to the creativity PLTW has fostered in her students. “As a result of PLTW my students have started “thinking outside of the box” in other areas of the curriculum and even apply these critical thinking skills to our classroom community.”

“It’s empowered the students to think like problem-solvers,” Vesling added. “Once the students have experienced success, their confidence increases, and they are more likely to utilize these skills in a more spontaneous manner.”

What is the most valuable takeaway?

Fronczak said the most valuable takeaways her students get out of PLTW are creative thinking, perseverance, resilience, confidence, cooperation, and negotiating.

“They have learned that teamwork makes the dream work because every one of their peers has something to offer, and everyone has the opportunity to be a leader during PLTW,” said Fronczak.

Fronczak said the most rewarding aspect for her is watching the evolution of her students’ future plans. “Kindergarteners are even aspiring to be engineers, computer programmers, and scientists when they grow up instead of princesses and superheroes.”

Vesling said PLTW helps her students learn to be respectful of others and open to new ideas.

“One of the most incredible things I have witnessed while teaching the program comes from students who may struggle with typical classroom curriculum and structure blossoming into true learners,” Vesling added.

“Also, students are beginning to become more comfortable with the concept that there are multiple ways to solve problems. This will serve them well in a global world where teamwork, problem solving, and communication skills will be vitally important,” Vesling said.

Biancardi said she thinks the most valuable takeaways from PLTW are the creativity, confidence, and critical thinking it inspires in students. “The strength of a PLTW program is that students practice skills used in problem-solving that can then be applied in whatever learning situation they will face in their future,” she said.

Biancardi shared some of what students have written in reflections about their PLTW projects. Her students have written phrases like, ““I am most proud of trying my best and finding ways to solve problems,” and “I learned you can't just give up in the middle of things, that you have to keep going. I think that everyone could benefit from that. Because when things are hard, most people want to quit, but I learned that you can't.”


Posted 5/15/2019




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