By Emily Morzewski
Across the United States, students are underexposed to science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields, but Project Lead the Way is trying to fix that. Project Lead the Way is a nationwide organization consisting of six different programs, starting with grade school students and moving through high school. Within these programs, a series of courses are offered in elementary, middle, and high schools, where students learn through hands-on experiences instead of from textbooks. The goal is to expose students to STEM at a young age and to continue to encourage the idea of careers and post-secondary education in these fields.
Before college, many students do not know what it means to have a career in engineering. “[Project Lead the Way] shows students what engineering looks like,” explains Judy Weiss, a Project Lead the Way instructor at Whitefish Bay High School. The courses touch on many different engineering fields. Through the hands-on, discovery style classes, students work to solve real-life problems. “Instead of having science and math be discrete topics, Project Lead the Way incorporates those things together to solve a problem or answer a question,” Weiss says. By teaching math and science skills together in group project work, students are better prepared to work in groups and are more prepared for their introductory level classes in college.
Another goal of Project Lead the Way is to encourage underrepresented students to pursue STEM careers. By exposing all students to the different aspects of STEM, they gain the understanding that a career in a STEM field is possible for anyone. Younger students often do not realize how diverse the field of engineering is because of how it has traditionally been portrayed in the media. “There is a perception that engineering is only for those boys that tinkered with their cars growing up,” Weiss says. “We have such a need in STEM fields, but half of the student population doesn’t get on the radar screen.” There are many different types of engineering that can appeal to a wide variety of people, and Project Lead the Way is hoping to demonstrate that to students starting at the elementary level.
Project Lead the Way courses are different from standard education because they do not use textbooks. “Hands-on is the mechanism for learning,” Weiss says. The Project Lead the Way curriculum is developed on a national level which differs from the district-to-district development of curriculum in standard education. At the core of this curriculum is the goal to develop a student’s problem-solving skills by having students collaborate in groups to solve problems and answer questions. Project Lead the Way courses are not only useful for students who ultimately decide to go into STEM fields, but also for students who decide to pursue different careers. “To be productive in any field, problem solving is key,” Weiss says.
The 21st century skills gained from these courses are what employers are looking for when hiring. Whether or not a student decides to pursue a STEM career, STEM education is an important part of a student’s education because all jobs are directly or indirectly related to STEM. Students who take these classes gain skills that not only benefit their education, but also their lives as they move into either industry or post-secondary education. As students move out into the world, their experience with Project Lead the Way gives them a competitive edge.