Students challenged, engaged by Oxford's Project Lead The Way curriculum
By Steven Hoffman
The 15 sophomores in Trevor Haney's Principles of Engineering Design class are pioneers.
They are the first students at Oxford Area High School to take Project Lead The Way courses that will prepare them for not just college, but for careers as scientists, engineers, or technological innovators. These students are truly leading the way: When Oxford launched its Project Lead The Way program in the 2014-2015 school year, this group took Haney's Introduction to Engineering Design course, and spent the year learning the basics of the engineering design process. They applied math, science, and technology skills and knowledge to solve complex problems, focusing more on the process of defining and solving a problem rather than arriving at the right answer.
Now, as sophomores, their curriculum in the Principles of Engineering Design class explores a wide range of engineering topics—automation, thermal dynamics, or the strength of structures or materials. One day, the students might be figuring out how different parts of a machine work together to perform a specific task. Or, they might be designing a slingshot by utilizing specific materials. On another day, Haney might ask them to create plans for a playground specifically designed for children in a wheelchair.
Haney, the school's technical education teacher, says that Project Lead The Way will prepare the students for their futures in a global economy that will be increasingly driven by science, technology, engineering, and math. He challenges his students to become “that smart person who will improve a technology.”
Project Lead The Way is a national program that prepares students from K-12 with a curriculum that emphasizes STEM—Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math.
Even though they are still early in their high school careers, brothers Noah and Jacob Hewes are thinking about what careers they might pursue when they are adults. Noah likes statistics, while Jacob has an interest in math and science. They are taking Project Lead The Way courses because they want to be challenged academically.
District officials say that Project Lead The Way is all about expanding horizons and pushing boundaries for students. While there are no tests to earn entry into the introductory Project Lead The Way course, the rigorous nature of the classes makes hard work a necessity.
“These courses are taught at a college level,” explained Dr. Margaret Billings-Jones, the assistant superintendent of schools in Oxford. “The rigor of the courses is consistent with what the students want. They aren’t afraid to take the challenge.”
“They are all extremely smart students,” Haney added.
Ever since superintendent David Woods and Billings-Jones joined the district in 2013, they supported the efforts to bring Project Lead The Way to Oxford schools because it offered more educational opportunities for students. Billings-Jones helped secure grant funding to launch the program.
“We understood the need for STEM education and Project Lead The Way really brings all those disciplines together,” she said.
The enrollment in Oxford’s Project Lead The Way has grown quickly as a result of the hands-on, project-based curriculum that is both challenging and engaging to students. That’s a powerful educational combination. Last year, the district had one Introduction to Engineering Design class, but this year there are two classes. The students who took the introduction class have advanced to the Principles of Engineering Design class this year and plan to take the next two steps in the progression.
“We knew that once we got it in the school it was going to take off,” said high school principal Christopher Dormer. “The students are so engaged. And we have everybody in here—we have athletes, kids who are in the choir. It’s a great cross-section of our student population. We have students asking, ‘How do I jump in on this.’”
In the classroom, Haney is not a sage on the stage talking at students for long stretches of time. Rather, he efficiently outlines the objectives of the assignment for the class—the way that a team leader might begin a workday with his team—and then he moves from group to group, checking on the progress and offering guidance whenever it’s needed.
In a Project Lead The Way class, students will be assigned a design challenge and they will then spend their time working in teams to complete the project. The students work together on problem-solving, and they compare notes with other teams—just as they would in a work environment. Trial and error is an important part of the coursework, and the students keep meticulous engineering notebooks filled with handwritten notes, sketches, and records from each assignment.
Dormer said that students have been very receptive to this kind of learning environment.
“Students don’t want to be talked at all the time and be bored,” he explained.
In a recent Introduction to Engineering class, ninth-graders Allison Highfield and Abbey O’Connor said that the Introduction to Engineering Design course has already broadened their horizons and exceeded their expectations that they had for the class.
Highfield said that she likes the fact that the Project Lead The Way classes are focused on math and science.
“Those are my stronger subjects,” she said.
Highfield and O’Connor like being able to work in collaboration with other students on the projects. Oxford officials say that the Project Lead The Way programming is beneficial for all students, not just those who plan on having careers in science or engineering, because the skills that they learn in collaboration, critical thinking, and communication are highly transferable to other endeavors.
Of course, the Project Lead The Way program only works when highly qualified teachers are delivering the curriculum.
According to Michael Garrison, the high school’s assistant principal, Haney has dedicated himself to the program, spending weeks during the summer completing special training to teach these advanced classes.
Haney said that he feels well-prepared to teach the curriculum.
“I’m not an aerospace engineer, but the training that I’ve had certainly makes me confident enough that I can teach aerospace engineering,” he explained.
Billings-Jones said that Project Lead The Way curriculum encourages collaboration, and not just between students. The school district reaches out to the community and brings in engineers to observe classes and to make recommendations about how to improve what is being taught in the classroom.
In the future, the Oxford students who complete the Introduction to Engineering Design and Principles of Engineering Design courses will be eligible to take courses on aerospace engineering and civil engineering.
Billings-Jones noted that if students earn a certain grade on their Project Lead The Way courses, it can translate into college credits before they even leave high school.
“It’s really the best education we can give them at this level,” Billings-Jones said.