Elementary Science and PLTW Launch: A Natural (and Timely) Solution

Kelly Bigliani is the instructional coach for Smithtown Central School District in Smithtown, New York, and is the 2018 Torch Award winner for significant contribution to the growth and professional development of her/his teacher colleagues. The district has implemented PLTW Launch as their science program to meet state standards, which were developed based on recommendations in the “Framework for K-12 Science Education,” the foundation for Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS).

“To raise new questions, new possibilities, to regard old problems from a new angle, requires creative imagination and marks real advance in science.” – Albert Einstein

As quoted by Einstein, we sometimes need to regard old problems from a new angle. This is true for challenges outside the science realm, as well.

Time is the age-old problem for elementary teachers. “We don’t have enough time.” “Where will this fit in?” “We can’t keep adding to the curriculum without taking something out.” These are the sentiments of most elementary classroom teachers. They work diligently, on a daily basis, to deliver and facilitate a packed curriculum. Expectations continue to increase as new standards are released and the struggle is real.

In 2015, Smithtown Central Schools began a comprehensive search for a STEM solution for all our students, K-12. We considered multiple options, but as our administrators researched the Project Lead The Way high school and middle school programs, it only made sense to investigate the PLTW Launch modules, too. PLTW offered a comprehensive, scaffolded approach, which not only could engage elementary school students but would connect all grade levels.

We found that the PLTW Launch modules were built upon a strong foundation in project-based learning, scientific inquiry, and content. They correlated with Next Generation Science Standards, K-12 Computer Science Standards, and made connections to the Common Core English Language Arts and Math Standards. Most importantly, the PLTW Launch modules provided hands-on science experiences. They encouraged the children to DO science – ask questions, explore, model, test prototypes, evaluate, and explain. This allowed students to develop ownership of the process and make discoveries on their own. Additionally, the PLTW Launch modules centered around real-world problems making the content relevant to students.

As importantly, PLTW offered extensive teacher training, a multitude of online resources, and a vehicle for providing project-based learning through STEM instruction. Preparing and supporting our teachers would be critical to our success. With best practices in mind, Smithtown decided to implement PLTW across all grade levels, with a bottom-up approach, starting with kindergarten through grade five.

Our team decided that merging PLTW modules with our current science curriculum would be a logical and effective solution. We could deliver our science curriculum through the flexible PLTW modules and all students would reap the benefits of the science knowledge and the 21st Century skills they would develop simultaneously.

The result has been wildly successful!

Aside from the obvious science knowledge and inquiry skills acquired, students fortunate enough to be in a PLTW classroom develop transportable skills that will serve them across all subjects and disciplines. During the journey through each module, teachers facilitate and model how to share thoughts, questions, ideas, and solutions.  Collaboration, critical thinking, and creativity are crucial to success. So is failure. Understanding that we learn from our mistakes is fundamental to the engineering design process used throughout the PLTW modules. Many children, especially our highest achieving students, struggled with this at first. The ability to listen to another person’s ideas and make decisions accordingly definitely has a learning curve for elementary students. But…the results are astounding!! (One parent even reported that their child was disappointed that we had a snow day because it was his PLTW day!)

Now, our decision to implement PLTW as our science solution is proving more valuable than ever. This past August, PLTW and a team of education experts worked collaboratively to further address the Next Generation Science Standards throughout the program. New modules released for next school year – informed by personal classroom experience, current research, and ongoing collaboration with experts in the STEM field – mean that PLTW Launch will provide full coverage of NGSS. As Smithtown prepares to meet compliance requirements for NGSS, we are eagerly awaiting the release of these modules! The timing couldn’t be better.

PLTW has provided our students with a comprehensive, innovative, and engaging curriculum that presents opportunities and access for all students. PLTW students consistently engage in critical thinking, collaboration, creativity, and problem solving. Two of those – the abilities to collaborate and problem solve – are among the most important skills that students need to learn to be college ready. That’s been so important in our older grades, too.

Don’t have time? Get creative! Be innovative! PLTW provided what we needed, even when our science needs changed. We found time, and now we’re helping develop the next generation of STEM leaders!!

PLTW’s blog intends to serve as a forum for ideas and perspectives from across our network. The opinions expressed are those of each guest author.

We would like to thank Arconic Foundation, Chevron, PPG Foundation, and SunPower for their generous support that made the important PLTW Launch updates possible.