Notre Dame Schools have taken Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) education to a new level. An offshoot of the popular high school pre-engineering Project Lead The Way, the PLTW Launch program is tailored for students in Kindergarten through 5th grade and made its debut at Notre Dame Elementary School last year.
Notre Dame Elementary pioneered the PLTW Launch in the Syracuse Diocese, and, according to the PLTW website, it is one of only three Catholic schools in New York State to offer the program. Notre Dame Elementary’s program is the only one of its kind between Saratoga and Baldwinsville. St. James School in Johnson City is starting Launch this year.
According to Notre Dame Elementary’s STEM Coordinator Barbara Wojcik, “Most schools start with PLTW in high school or perhaps the junior high program, PLTW Gateway,” she said. “Instead we started full forward Kindergarten through 6th grade rather than working back from the upper levels or starting in increments.”
Launch aligns to the New York State curriculum, Common Core, and Next Generation Science Standards in each grade level on an ongoing basis. As the school’s Launch lead teacher, Wojcik attended special trainings that then allow her to coach the grade-level classroom teachers in the activity, project and problem based teaching method. Following training, teachers become certified to teach PLTW Launch.
The program also requires an investment in tools such as Mini iPads and Vex robotic kits. Notre Dame Schools Development Director Kari Puleo said the program, as well as PLTW’s Gateway program at the junior high level, was made possible through a nearly $38,000 grant from Oneida County’s Partners in Prosperity Fund.
Wojcik, a 40-year teaching veteran, said Catholic schools have the agility to readily introduce innovative programs like this. “Our school has always been very proactive and stayed ahead of things … The diocese allows us to adapt to rather than simply adopt new curriculum,” she said.
The program fosters critical thinking, collaboration and problem solving, according to Wojcik. “One of the tenets of Launch is the idea of ‘forward failure,’ which gives the children the freedom to go back when they get some place in a project that doesn’t work,” she explained. “Their curiosity eliminates the fear of failure.”
Wojcik said the program boosts knowledge retention. She described one of Principal Mary Rossi’s visits with first graders in April where the children were still excitedly talking about the stars, sun and moon and terminology they learned through Launch back in January.
PLTW Launch also appeals to different types of students who may not be comfortable with traditional book learning. “These students often become leaders in the class with the hands-on approach to the material,” Wojcik noted. “They work better in the mode.”
Dyann Nashton is a freelance writer from Oneida, New York.