PLTW Has Helped Transform and Ignite STEM Learning in Our District

Teresa Koontz is the Gifted and Talented Education (GATE) coordinator and a PLTW teacher for the Carpinteria Unified School District, located in the Carpinteria Valley in California, 12 miles southeast of Santa Barbara. The school district began offering PLTW Launch in the 2019-20 school year with a PLTW Grant supported by Chevron. Teresa travels to all four elementary schools to help facilitate the PLTW Launch program for students.

The Carpinteria Unified School District (CUSD) consists of six schools – one comprehensive high school, one middle school, and four elementary schools. The entire CUSD student body of approximately 2,090 students is composed of 78 percent minority students. More than 74 percent of the district enrollment is Latino. Currently, two CUSD schools are recognized as California Distinguished Schools.

CUSD has been committed to integrating district-wide STEM education for our learners. Historically, some schools have offered organized STEM opportunities through an Exploration Lab or science labs, but these services varied from site to site. Gifted and Talented Education (GATE) students (grades 3-5) participated in STEAM lessons; however, the instruction did not adhere to a specific program.

We chose to implement PLTW Launch because it provides a systematic program, professional development, and ongoing support that will eventually enable us to serve all our elementary students in the future as we add more teachers and expand our PLTW offerings. In addition, PLTW’s other programs offer the opportunity for a seamless pathway through all grade levels. When our district began the implementation of PLTW Launch in fall 2019, we offered the Robotics and Automation module to small groups of GATE students at each elementary school.

CUSD is focused on helping English Learners become Reclassified Fluent English Proficient Learners prior to sixth grade when they enter middle school. To help achieve this goal, in October 2020, the district expanded PLTW instruction by providing English Language Development lessons to high-performing fifth grade English Learners. Implementing the rigorous PLTW curricula with a sheltered English approach has proven to be engaging and effective for our learners.

A group of CUSD teachers attended the PLTW Summit in Anaheim during the 2019-20 school year to receive the training necessary to facilitate PLTW Launch. At the same time, I received the PLTW Launch Lead Teacher certification. Despite COVID-19 school closures, our district has continued to offer PLTW lessons to our students via Zoom. Currently, GATE students participate in bi-weekly lessons, and we offer English Language Development lessons weekly.

Looking to the future, the district would like all elementary teachers to receive training so that PLTW Launch instruction can reach every elementary student. And we plan to offer those students the opportunity to continue their STEM learning when they move on to middle school.

"Our goal is to implement PLTW modules in (PreK-8) classrooms to provide all students with robust STEM learning experiences," CUSD Superintendent Diana Rigby said.

Next semester, we are expanding our PLTW offerings by implementing the PLTW Gateway Automation and Robotics unit for the first time at the Carpinteria Middle School.

I enjoy teaching PLTW for many reasons. Above all, I always feel confident that I am addressing the academic standards. Additionally, I feel comfortable incorporating my own teaching strategies and resources to extend lessons and enhance student learning. This includes apps to boost computer skills, GATE strategies such as the Scholarly Traits or the Prompts of Depth and Complexity, or special print or video resources. For an educator, beginning with a strong educational program then fine tuning it to make it your own is always exciting. The students love it, too!

“I enjoy the PLTW lessons because we get to actually experience things, not just watch how they work,” one fifth grade student said. “Also, we get to work independently and feel like real scientists.”

Students who participate in PLTW Launch are excited to learn about relevant concepts and use novel techniques. The online instructional guides and PLTW Launch Logs are excellent tools for our young scholars and encourage them to think and behave like true engineers. Additionally, students are motivated to continue research outside the classroom, often returning to share their findings and projects with classmates.

“I have done lots of online coding, but I find it exciting that we are learning how to code a robot,” one third grade student said. “Something that actually moves physically!”

CUSD receives strong public support which is demonstrated through partnerships with community agencies and businesses, fundraising, and active parent support groups. Our district received generous support from Chevron that enabled the implementation of the PLTW Launch Robotics and Automation module, including the purchase of multiple VEX IQ Kits for every elementary school. The implementation of PLTW would not have been possible without this support.

One of our scholars was also awarded a student grant to supplement their school library with a collection of state-of-the-art robotics books.

The Carpinteria Education Foundation and the Lions Club provided funding for the expansion of PLTW programming to the middle school. This community partnership has ensured that funding is available to support ongoing professional development, as well as the purchase of instructional materials.

“PLTW has helped transform and ignite STEM learning in our district by providing cutting edge robotics materials and structured, progressive lessons,” Carpinteria Education Foundation Administrator Pam Werner said. “It is our hope that we can continue to expand the program to all students and develop a middle school pathway to our high school engineering program by adding more modules over time.”