by Ward Mullens, Published August 10, 2010
YPSILANTI - While experts argue over whether there is a worldwide shortage of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) graduates, there is little dispute that North America lags well behind the rest of the world in the category, and that something must be done.
"According to one study, two countries produce about 90 percent of all graduates in STEM subjects," said John Dugger, coordinator of EMU's Project Lead the Way Program. "And the U.S. is not one of them!"
Project Lead The Way (PLTW) is a curriculum delivery method designed to give STEM teachers new and creative ways to attract, and retain, students interested in the STEM subjects.
"We are working with middle schools and high schools to introduce a new, and unique and accountable model for teaching and learning," said Paul Kuwik, state director of Project Lead the Way. Kuwik is a retired professor of technology studies at EMU.
EMU has been the state affiliate for PTLW for the past three years.
"We started with nine school districts," said Kuwik.
This year, 121 Michigan school districts are involved, with more than 6,700 students, engaged in the program.
The teachers of those students come to Eastern Michigan University during the summer to learn from master instructors about how to deliver the Project Lead the Way curriculum.
"This is the best bridge between math, physics and engineering I've seen," said Jeff Nowak, a math teacher at Lincoln High School.
"It prepares students for the jobs they are going to get because it allows them to work in teams on real problems," said Jason Cady, a middle school teacher at Oxford Middle School in Oxford, Michigan.
"This is the first class I've taught where they want to come in and work on projects," said Janet Bronson, a longtime physics and chemistry teacher from Jackson High School. "Everyday is an "ah-ha" moment for them. They realize that creativity is important and that there is not just one right answer to solving a problem."
Another value to the students is that they can earn college credits in engineering.
What sets Project Lead the Way apart from traditional STEM teaching is that it allows students to see the concepts from traditional classes at work as they build a class project. For example, they can apply what they have learning in math, chemistry and physics as they build a simple electrical circuit.
But the biggest challenge for the program remains financial.
While the state department of education endorses the program, Michigan does not provide any financial resources.
"The state of Ohio provided almost $2 million to their program this year. Indiana provides almost $400 per student for its program," Kuwik said. "We are completely privately funded."
That means Kuwik spends a lot of his time seeking support from businesses and corporations. A large portion of that money goes to provide scholarships for teachers in districts that can't afford the $3,000 price tag for training.
"Funding is the largest obstacle we have," Kuwik said. "School districts don't have the money it takes to send their teachers to training."
Kuwik said his program provided about $80,000 in scholarships for teachers to attend this year's summer training institutes.
Although EMU's PLTW Program continues to grow, Kuwik said the goal is to have the program offered in 30 percent of the state's school districts.
"We are passionate about this model," said Dugger. "This is a wonderful new approach to integrating disciplines."