Middle School Students Develop High-level Critical Thinking Skills

Adam Mack is a PLTW Gateway teacher at W.R. Middle School in the Miami-Dade School District, where he has challenged his students to develop real-world skills and earn industry credentials through PLTW’s APB approach and SolidProfessor’s online, video-based courses.

Teaching middle school students about engineering and design is both rewarding and challenging. These are complex topics and skill sets for sixth- to eighth-grade students that take decades to really master, and we must quickly get them up-to-speed in a matter of months. As a middle school teacher, I’ve experienced tremendous success by leveraging the PLTW Gateway program’s project-based, hands-on learning and adding in SolidProfessor’s online video-based courses. Through this format, we’ve been able to not only prepare students for high school but also give them valuable industry credentials at a young age.

I first got started with PLTW several years ago through a Verizon grant, and I immediately loved that the program is designed around real-world situations. Through the APB (activity-, project-, and problem-based) instructional design, students can focus first on learning new skills through engaging activities. Then, they are challenged with using those skills to complete a project, further developing their abilities. Finally, they get to use those well-honed skills to think critically and problem-solve in peer groups, both of which are invaluable talents to have in today’s complex world. This style of learning has created a collaborative space for my students to develop both their hard and soft skills as they prepare for their future in the workplace.

Because the content we’re learning in the engineering and computer science units is challenging, I also add in SolidProfessor’s online video tutorials, and it has really been a fantastic tool for me as an instructor. With SolidProfessor, I’ve been able to create a well-structured program with a daily lesson from PLTW followed immediately by hands-on, guided practice with SolidProfessor. This format allows the students to learn the content and then immediately practice the skills they just learned. Students can stop, start, and re-watch the videos as needed to ensure mastery of the subjects. With SolidProfessor’s guided practices, the students can follow a step-by-step process to develop their Autodesk Inventor skills.

When I set up my class for the year, I typically start out by introducing SolidProfessor and letting the students learn from their videos for a few weeks. That way, students can discover how the Autodesk Inventor platform works and get some experience moving from a basic sketch to a full assembly and drawings. Then, students use their skills along with some of the advanced videos from PLTW’s Computer Science for Innovators and Makers and then Automation and Robotics. They’ve also added parts, boxes, and assemblies in Computer Science for Innovators and Makers during the food dispenser and security system challenges. Overall, I love the ability to teach them a skill set in SolidProfessor and let them apply it during their PLTW projects.

Toward the end of the year, after the students have gained familiarity with the Autodesk Inventor platform, we start preparing for the Inventor Certified User exam. SolidProfessor’s exam prep course is an excellent tool to give students that last bit of experience they need in preparation. When it’s time to take the test, we use SolidProfessor’s online practice exams to give the students a feel for what it will be like on the testing day. Students use the practice exams and review videos until they can complete each question correctly.

By combining both PLTW curriculum and SolidProfessor’s online resources, my students have developed great problem-solving skills. My colleagues at the high school level have reported that my students come into the engineering and technology programs with a higher level of understanding compared to middle schoolers without these opportunities. Both PLTW and SolidProfessor, when planned appropriately, do a fantastic job of introducing and developing basic skills and then transferring those skills to projects and problem-based scenarios. Students gain higher-order thinking and can develop their skills to their fullest abilities. When you combine PLTW and SolidProfessor, your students will surprise you with some great projects.

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