Students Learn Best When They Know Their Work Matters

Students from Maine West H.S. in Des Plaines, Illinois, design a solution to their school's parking problems.
Students from Maine West H.S. in Des Plaines, Illinois, design a solution to their school's parking problems.

Summer vacation is underway across the United States, but there is no doubt many students are already eager to get back into the classroom — not because they are tired of the heat or days at the pool, but because their classrooms have become laboratories where they solve meaningful problems in their communities.

That is exactly what happened this year in the Pattonville Independent School District in Missouri. When the district leaders couldn't find an app that would suit the district’s needs and fit within the budget, they turned to Project Lead The Way (PLTW) students in the PLTW Computer Science program.

Eight seniors spent the year developing, designing and preparing the app for market. They researched app development in August and September and began coding in October. Half of the students developed the Android version of the app, and the other half developed the iOS version. Their teacher, Jeremiah Simmons, had them study Apple's product launches to plan how they would introduce the app, and they completed a formal roll-out and presentation for the district and community on June 1.

Six of the seniors completed PLTW’s Computer Science A course as juniors, and about half had taken PLTW’s Computer Science Principles the year before. They say these courses prepared them with the knowledge and skills they needed to succeed and nothing could have been more fulfilling than accomplishing a real-world project.

“It's like it was a job,” said Micah Thompkins, a recent Pattonville High School graduate and PLTW alum. “We're interacting as we would as coworkers. We have a client; we have a due date. It's the most quantifiable, most like a real-world job thing I've done in high school.”

The project also gave students an opportunity to learn and develop other skills they will need as adults, such as how to understand the needs of a business client, research the best solutions, use new technologies and present their product. These skills are key to thriving in the workplace, but are rarely cultivated in traditional classrooms.

The best way to prepare students with the skills they need to succeed in college and careers is to give them real-world problems to solve. When their solutions make an impact in their community, students understand the relevance of what they’re learning.

Another example is students in PLTW’s Civil Engineering and Architecture course at Maine West High School in Des Plaines, Illinois, who helped redesign the traffic flow in their school parking lot to ease congestion during drop-off and pick-up hours. The students researched and designed solutions, and made a proposal to the architect managing the project. The architect was so impressed that he planned to incorporate their solutions into the summer repaving project.

Royland Black, a student in the PLTW Engineering Design and Development course at Robert E. Lee High School in Tyler, Texas, used a class project to solve a problem he faced on the football field. He developed a material that protects athletes’ feet from injury when they’re stepped on by another competitor’s cleats. He’s now seeking a patent for his TUFFTOE product, and he even turned down a football scholarship so he could attend a college with an engineering program.

For the students in these examples, school isn’t memorizing theories and equations or solving word problems out of textbooks. It’s an inspiring, empowering and relevant experience. For students who experience school as rote memorization and a set of experiences they cannot connect to the real world, it is no wonder they long for the summer vacation.

When students know their work matters and can see the results, they not only retain it, but they value it. They experience fulfillment in their education and a sense of achievement that motivates them to continue learning. And they no longer have to ask, “When will I ever use this again?”

Vince M. Bertram is president and CEO of Project Lead The Way and the New York Times bestselling author of “One Nation Under Taught: Solving America’s Science, Technology, Engineering and Math Crisis.”

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