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Business Community Leads the Way for Local STEM Education

Getting kids excited about learning math and science seems like an impossible dream to many parents and teachers. In a fast-paced world filled with video games, YouTube videos, Facebook posts and texting, it has become even more difficult to get and keep student’s attention, especially in subjects that most find challenging. But coursework exists that stimulates curiosity in these essential subjects…so much so that students want to skip lunch and PE to spend more time in the classes.

That is exactly what happened at Trask Middle this past school year when 40 sixth grade students began classes developed by Project Lead The Way (PLTW), the nation’s leading provider of STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) curricula to middle and high schools. PLTW has been cited by the Harvard Graduate School of Education as a “model for 21st century career and technical education.” Students at Trask Middle took PLTW’s Gateway To Technology program that is composed of two separate classes: Design and Modeling, and Automation and Robotics. The classes introduced them to engineering, robotics, computer modeling, and design, among other STEM-related subjects. PLTW coursework allows students the opportunity to apply what they are learning in traditional math and science classes to real-world, hands-on problems and projects.

But one of most impressive aspects of Trask’s new PLTW program is that it didn’t start in the school system. The business community, through the Chamber’s flagship initiative Cape Fear Future (CFF), funded the program.

Surveying of area business leaders conducted at the launch of CFF showed that improving STEM education offerings in area schools was a top priority. It is crucial, they said, that our local education system helps students develop critical-thinking and problem-solving skills, and that they are prepared to perform in technology jobs. After much research, the CFF Education Team determined that introducing PLTW was an excellent place to start, and CFF invested $50,000 the first year to launch the program at Trask Middle.

Science teacher Chuck Leake was the first New Hanover County School teacher to receive PLTW training at the University of South Carolina – Columbia, and become certified to teach the courses, as well as teach other local teachers in course instruction. Chuck’s classroom was transformed into a wonderland where one class project had students charged with rebuilding civilization on earth. Students use scavenged and recycled materials to build vehicles that can traverse rough terrain, constructed a device that can rotate a solar collection dish located outside their building, and developed machines that can pump water, cut wood and grind grain.

In the Design and Modeling course, students built truss bridges that they chose to enter in the NC Department of Transportation Statewide Model Bridge Building Competition. The projects required applying mathematical ideas, visualizing structural behavior, and expanding problem solving skills.

Several Chamber board members and Cape Fear Future investors visited the school in May to meet the students taking the course and see some of the projects they’d been working on. Never have I seen a group of students more enthusiastic about being in school. The parents of the students have been just as excited, saying the program has energized their kids to embrace math and science.

I’m pleased to report that the program has been so successful that New Hanover County Schools will expand it to DC Virgo this upcoming school year and to the incoming sixth-grade class at Trask. Two other schools want to start it as well.

CFF will continue to fund the program for two more years at Trask Middle so the students already enrolled in the program can take the next two phases. This three-year commitment will total over $70,000, plus the addition of a smart board to the Project Lead The Way classroom that was installed this year.

Having the business community partner with the school system is important to improving our region, and we believe our businesses will see the benefits of Project Lead The Way as the pool of highly-skilled workers increases.

You can do more than read about this wonderful program. The Chamber and the school system made a great video about its first year at Trask. Take a few minutes to watch…and feel good about what’s happening in local schools with the help of the business community: Watch Video.