How One PLTW Launch Teacher Stepped Back and Her Students Stepped Up

When I began teaching the robotics unit in PLTW Launch, I had some of the same preconceived notions and questions that many teachers may have when teaching a unit solely based on robots:

  1. The boys will excel.
  2. Will the girls like it?
  3. My high flyers will hold the groups up if there is trouble.
  4. Will my struggling students understand the content?

Not only was I wrong on so many levels, I was completely blown away by what my students showed me!

Loud, Noisy, and Fun

The first pleasant surprise came when the girls in the class were just as excited as the boys to learn about and build robots. I had no issues getting the girls fully engaged and taking part in the module. It was loud, noisy, and FUN that first day as the students explored everything from military robots to humanoid robots. The students’ presentations were well rounded, and many of the girls took the role of speaker to teach the class about the robot they chose to explore. As a female teacher, this reinforced for me the importance of exposing girls to STEM-based content and activities so that they can see themselves as successful in these areas as well.

Real, Dynamic, and Hands-On

My second revelation came in the form of how my students grasped the content and were able to engage in the process of learning about and building robots. Everyone in the class, whether a struggling student or a high achiever, was able to fully engage with the content and immerse themselves in the learning process. The students were able to understand the language and key terms used in the stories and instructions because they got to experience it in a real, dynamic, and hands-on way. This made such a difference in their long-term storage of information, and their ability to link the content they learned in this module to their learning in other core classes.

Engaged, Empowered, and Excited

My biggest and best learning curve in this module was a student named Josh. Josh is one of my biggest strugglers in all his core classes, and because of severe ADD he has difficulty focusing in any class or on any content for more than 2-3 minutes at a time. Josh requires seating by himself to reduce distractions, has difficulty working well with others, and needs consistent monitoring so that he can be successful in school. When I first started this module, I was worried about how to integrate Josh into a group setting and whether he would be able to fully engage in a 45-minute class. Even though I thought this might be of high interest for him, I have seen similar interests wane after a few days when the distractions in the class became too much for Josh to handle.

All of my worry and misconceptions were for nothing! Josh came alive in this module like I have never seen him before. The first thing that I noticed was his ability to stay engaged for the full 45 minutes. This totally blew me away - I had ZERO redirections with him for the entire time we spent on the module. I will repeat: I have never seen him engage like this! The second thing that I saw and completely delighted in was the fact that he not only worked well within his group of four, but he took a leadership role. He helped the other students understand the content, build the robots, prepare presentations, and speak in front of the class with no fear. His group also moved through the module the fastest and was able to help the other groups troubleshoot their robot builds so everyone could complete the challenge. His ability to engage not only excited me, it made me wonder how we could change the environment of learning in our school to mirror the success I saw in this module. If I can get Josh to engage like this in PLTW, how can I take what I saw in this module and move it over to his other core subject classes to get the same results?

What I want others to take away most from my learning experience is this: Don’t be afraid of modules you may think only boys will like or that only your high achievers will understand. You will be shocked at what your students will show you when you get out of their way and put your preconceptions in the back seat. Your lowest achieving student may become your best, your girls may completely outperform the boys, and you may learn something new! Also, try to see why the activity-, project, problem-based approach really works, and be open to changing the way you teach to replicate the success you will see in PLTW Launch. I promise that you will be re-energized as a teacher and will want to do this module year after year after year!