Transition from High School
to College and Career

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What's working:

Project Lead the Way helps us understand how to:

+ Challenge students to become problem solvers so they develop essential skills to prepare them to enter the workforce

+  Engage students with real-world learning

+  Employ instructional strategies that help students become life-ready

Project Lead the Way was really the first program to present engineering as a potential career to me. It consistently challenged me with engaging projects to develop my skills.
— Jacob Morgan, Maverick Technologies, Engineer

A civil engineering and architecture class of third-year students ventured out from Star City High School to the town square. Their teacher, Ginny Chambliss, stayed in the background while students searched out a site for their commercial redesign project. After selecting an old vacant storefront, one team member sketched out the storefront while another read a historical plaque on the building, a first step toward figuring out the building's architectural style.

Upon returning to the classroom, the students conducted research online and developed a digital model of the storefront using 3D architectural design software called AutoDesk Revit. Chambliss maintained her supervisory role, giving guidance and direction to students as needed.

This was a typical class lesson for students participating in Project Lead the Way (PLTW), which offered K-12 programs based on a collaborative, hands-on STEM curriculum. Through hands-on learning, PLTW students were developing core math, literacy, and life skills in alignment with Common Core standards. PLTW became an important asset for educators in the implementation of rigorous standards, particularly with regard to the focus on college and career readiness.

Students as problem solvers

In Chambliss’s class, like in other PLTW courses, students went beyond doing standard calculations. They also demonstrated the expertise described by Common Core’s Standards for Mathematical Practice, which defined essential problem-solving competencies. Completing a PLTW assignment, required students to show they could “construct viable arguments and critique the reasoning of others” and “use appropriate tools strategically,” to quote two of the standards. 

The assignment Chambliss’ students participated in pushed students to go beyond math-centered skills and grow in other areas. For example, the students’ documentation of their ideas using diagrams and explanations, along with the team presentations they delivered, were key to the learning process. They learned to be effective writers and communicators in a virtual workplace. 

Real-world learning

Bud McMillion, a PLTW instructor for grades 9-12 at Arkadelphia High School, introduced his digital electronics class to a microcontroller board called the Arduino Uno. His assignment to the class–take this gadget, learn its functions, and develop a useful product that solves a problem–would intimidate many students at the college level.

To complete the assignment, students performed the duties of a professional engineer and proceeded through the “engineering design cycle.” The cycle’s steps, McMillion explained, were to identify the problem, brainstorm solutions, select a final design, create the product, and conduct tests to prove the technology operated correctly. As with the creative assignment in Chambliss’ class, Arkadelphia students demonstrated mastery of mathematical and engineering concepts they would need to succeed in future careers.

As a veteran PLTW teacher, McMillion shared how students responded to learning experiences that mirror professional tasks in technical fields. Over the years, six to ten graduating students in his small, rural school district have gone on to study engineering at a university, and over the years several have graduated with an engineering degree.

One of those students, Jacob Morgan, became an engineer at Maverick Technologies, an independent industrial automation and systems integration company. Morgan, a 2008 graduate of Arkadelphia, always enjoyed math and science. “PTLW was really the first program to present engineering as a potential career to me. It consistently challenged me with engaging projects to develop my skills,” Morgan said.

becoming "life-ready"

Tim Johnston, program coordinator at the Arkansas Department of Career Education and the point of contact between PLTW and Arkansas schools, said PLTW and similar programs have helped students become life-ready.

And Johnston has the numbers to support this. A study comparing students in Texas PLTW programs to students not participating found that for those who did not enroll in college, the median wage for PLTW students was over 13 percent higher.[11] That same study found that PLTW students were more prepared for and attended Texas higher education institutions at a higher rate.[12] From an outreach perspective, PLTW clearly attraced the populations that have historically participated in STEM disciplines in lower numbers. Hispanic enrollment in PLTW increased by over 500 percent, females by nearly 600 percent, and low-income students by 650 percent.[13]   

For McMillion, the success of PLTW tied directly to its focus on simulating challenges that students were bound to face in a career and in life. The PLTW curriculum was designed for students to excel as persistent problem solvers; it has been a powerful means to prepare students for college and the workplace. “These courses teach you how to deal with life,” said McMillion about PLTW. “Because life consists of problems that you’ve got to deal with. If you have a method where you can break a problem down and figure out a solution fairly easily, then you’re going to be successful.”

[11] James P. Van Overschelde, “Project Lead the Way Students More Prepared for Higher Education,” American Journal of Engineering Education 4, no. 1 (Spring 2013).

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid.