First-graders learn about light and sound waves; second-graders study the engineering designs of dispersing seeds; and third-graders experiment with motion, stability and flight — all without a textbook.
Such is what’s happening at Gulliver Schools in Coral Gables, where hands-on science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) modules are replacing hundreds of textbook pages.
“A lot of people are intimidated by math and science,” said Lisa Judy-Smith, a science teacher at Gulliver Academy’s Lower School. “And I know when I was young, we used to ask, what am I ever going to need it for?”
“Everything,” says Judy-Smith, who leads the lower school’s science department in a national STEM pilot program created by Project Lead The Way (PLTW) for grades K-5.
Last April, a team of Gulliver high school students won two awards for its eco-cooker, a heating-source device to be used in developing countries.
PLTW is a nonprofit organization that provides STEM education for public, private and charter schools. It supplements curricula across the nation with modules that put students in the shoes of the scientist or engineer, so they can learn math and science based on the real world.
“It’s a part of the way people learn in general,” Judy-Smith said. “If you do something, you’re going to remember much better.”
PLTW first developed high school programming in 1997, followed by programs for middle schools. It now offers STEM courses in more than 5,000 schools nationwide and 120 schools in Florida, including the Pathway to Engineering program at Gulliver Preparatory and the Gateway to Technology program at the academy’s middle school.
Elementary schools are next. Gulliver’s Lower School, 12595 Red Rd., is one of 43 schools across the country piloting the program to familiarize kids with STEM concepts at an earlier age. Students in grades K-fourth will begin the project-based program in late October.
Gulliver was the only school in South Florida selected after an application process that assessed the school’s leadership, diversity, success of other PLTW programs and the ability to sustain the elementary program over time, said Jennifer Cahill, a spokeswoman for PLTW.
Other elementary schools in Florida piloting the program include Harns Marsh Elementary in Lee County, Chestnut Elementary School for Science and Engineering in Osceola, and Goldsboro Elementary Magnet School in Seminole County.
Five Miami-Dade County high schools offer the engineering program: American, Booker T. Washington, Miami Sunset, Hialeah Gardens and North Miami. MAST Academy at Homestead offers the biomedical course.
“Experiential activities with engineering takes away the intimidation,” said Judy-Smith, which is why PLTW originated.
The program has its roots in pre-engineering and digital electronics classes that the Shenendehowa Central School District in New York offered in the mid-1980s. About a decade later, the program was implemented in about a dozen New York schools to encourage students to pursue secondary education or careers in STEM fields, such as engineering, chemistry or math.
The demand for STEM occupations is projected to increase 17 percent from 2008-2018, with only a 9 percent increase in non-STEM fields, according to a study by the U.S. Department of Commerce in July 2011.
Cahill said that’s why the younger generations need to feel comfortable around technology, especially engineering.
“It’s a tool that’s fun and isn’t scary to show them all the possibilities and their own capabilities,” Cahill said. “They apply what they learn in a context in which it wasn’t learned, and that’s one of the great things that PLTW does.”
Lower School Principal Patricia Martello said the program is long overdue.
“It’s time and maybe past time to implement it with the 5- and 6-year-olds,” Martello said. “We’re not pushing the boundaries of these kids. They are born with technology in their hands.”
The lower school has been a part of the Full Option Science System since 1993, a research-based science curriculum.
“They keep a science journal, they label materials, collect data and document findings,” said Judy-Smith. “So they understand there’s more to being a scientist than watching volcanoes erupt.”
Teacher training for the new program will take place in Indianapolis during the first two weeks of October.
Wesley Terrell, a senior director of programs at PLTW, said one module for elementary schools is building an animal-rescue device.
“They have to build the device out of robotic equipment to rescue the animal,” said Terrell, referring to the elephant model. “They’re not only using simple machines and putting things together, but it also becomes about the health of the animal.”
Yolanda Baquet, a science teacher and the middle school’s PLTW chair, said the biomedical science program, which Gulliver piloted last year, changed the class environment.
“It brought it to life,” said Baquet, pointing at a temperature probe. “They learn about hypertension, increased blood pressure and increased salt in the body. It was only textbook-based, and now they use the tools they will actually use in the field.”
Steven Lazar, 14, an eighth-grader who took Baquet’s biomedical science class, acknowledged how fortunate he is.
“I think it’s pretty cool because we’re doing stuff that only certain classes are doing in the country — it’s actually very cool.”