Community Comes Together to Expand Career Learning for Barren County Students

Imagine: A state-of-the-art facility built for collaboration and filled with business, education, and community leaders who are all present to share how they can better work together to prepare students for life. This isn’t a reality for every school district, but it is for Barren County Schools in Kentucky.

The school district recently hosted dozens of partners at the new Innovation Zone facility to showcase how the district’s PreK-12 students are developing in-demand, transportable skills, such as the ability to think critically, collaborate, and communicate through Project Lead The Way (PLTW). Students from each grade level shared with the group how their project is solving real-world problems.

For example, one middle school student shared the foot orthosis project she designed to help patients suffering from cerebral palsy, the iterations she went through to arrive at the prototype, and how the experience has inspired her to pursue a career in the medical field. 

Her teacher added context around the progress she sees in her students throughout the process.

“I love that they may be afraid of failure in the beginning, but in PLTW they can express their ideas without that fear of failure, because there are so many options,” said Monisa Philbeck, PLTW Automation and Robotics teacher at Barren County Middle School.

Even the county’s youngest students shared how they used the engineering design process to solve problems, such as building a house that can withstand wind gusts.

“Every problem starts with a story, and 5-year-olds love stories,” said Robin McMurtrey, PLTW Launch kindergarten teacher at Hiseville Elementary. “Hearing about Jack and his bean stalk and then getting the problem to solve really excites them. Throughout the process, you see their faces change, but the conversations are amazing. They figured out the creativity it takes to be an engineer. A lot of people don’t think 5-year-olds can do it, but they can.”

PLTW President and CEO Vince Bertram spoke to the group of students and community leaders and shared his perspective on what he heard from students.

“At the core of all this is, I hear you say ‘I can help someone,’ and that mindset will serve you well,” he said. “When you have this knowledge and these skills, you can use them to solve problems for people, and companies are looking for people to do that.”

Since Barren County Schools implemented PLTW in 2012, the community has rallied around the common goal of supporting career learning, and that commitment to students is evident in the leadership’s vision for what is possible.

“We’ve blurred lines, taken silos down, and said ‘why not?’" said Barren County Schools Superintendent Bo Matthews. “Why, here in rural Barren County, Kentucky, would we see a tech startup, student entrepreneurship, or have these kinds of opportunities? And I ask, ‘Why not?’” 

Matthews continued that this wouldn’t be possible without great teachers willing to take a risk. The risk, to Barren County Schools, has been rewarded as businesses are now recruiting students from their PLTW classrooms for internships and other opportunities.

“We used to be an isolated school,” said Scott Harper, director of instruction and technology. “We sought those relationships, because we can be responsive to business needs.” 

To stay up to date on all of Vince's travels and the latest in education and workforce development news, please follow @vincebertram on Twitter.