Tech tools help 'Lead the Way' for Franklin Regional students
When Megan Melucci's fourth-graders used to engage a lesson about simple machines, a lot more imagination was required.
This year, her Heritage Elementary students are using multiple iPad apps that give them a three-dimensional, 360-degree view of those machines.
"It has just revolutionized what we're doing and teaching," Melucci said.
Those tech tools — part of the district-wide "Project Lead the Way" initiative — "show them the machines they're exploring, but they can also 'explode' the pieces and see what parts go where," said Newlonsburg Elementary fifth-grade teacher Mike Dibert. "Now, it's as if they can reach in and pull that piece right out."
Project Lead the Way is a three-year program that places an emphasis on problem solving, critical and creative thinking, collaboration and communication and creating a learning environment where students are actively engaged.
While the initiative is being rolled out throughout the district — including an intro-to-engineering course that has proven to be very popular at the high school — the ultimate goal is what Newlonsburg Elementary Principal Tina Gillen called a "vertical articulation."
"We want a situation where, as kids move on to middle school and high school, they'll have had the experience of these previous courses," Gillen said.
Melucci, Dibert and four other FR teachers took time out of their summer to train at schools such as Bucknell, the Milwaukee School of Engineering and St. Cloud University in Minnesota to become Project Lead the Way "launch lead" teachers, who in turn trained their fellow educators.
At the elementary level, students work on computer science and engineering concepts tied to real-world issues and problems: fourth-graders work to design a method to rescue a trapped tiger at the zoo, and to create a reaction-time computer program as a way to diagnose a concussion. Fifth-graders design a mobile, remote-controlled robot that can avoid obstacles, and design software to model how an infectious disease spreads.
"We give them very structural problems to start out," said gifted teacher Carmen Loughner. "And then that leads up to presenting them with an ill-structured problem that they have to figure out how to solve."
Students record their work in a "launch log" that catalogs their progress as well as provides teachers with ways to gauge how they stack up against Project Lead the Way goals.
"What we learned is that while every launch log will look similar, no two projects will look the same," Loughner said. "Everyone formulating their own solution to these real-world problems."
At the middle-school level, seventh-graders worked in teams to dissect a sheep brain as part of a biomedical science unit. Student Ethan Bell said it was a unique experience he won't forget.
"Because of being able to really indulge and understand things more so than with a pen, paper and book, I think it will stick with me longer," he told the Franklin Regional school board at a recent meeting.
Middle-school teacher Erin Komoroski said Project Lead the Way initiatives help lessons and problems become "very real" for students.
"They can see it, they can work with with it, they can really see themselves working in that biomedical field," Komoroski said. "The driving force behind it is to give the kids an opportunity that I know I didn't have growing up: to really show them these fields and what it's like to work in them."
Dibert said that while FR teachers were already involving students in this type of inquiry-based learning, "Project Lead the Way is really helping to get them engaged and interested in these topics."
"Kids are so used to buying a toy, putting batteries in it and using it," Dibert said. "We're teaching them how it works, the circuits and the inputs and outputs … Instead of just building a model, now we're asking them to understand why it works."
Gillen said the two biggest differences Project Lead the Way has introduced is new technology and the type of problems students are being asked to tackle.
"Our focus is on meaningful problems that are applicable to real life," she said. "It has kids solving problems that people get paid in real life to solve, so there's a real career-path component to it as well."
Patrick Varine is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 724-850-2862, firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @MurrysvilleStar.