STEM initiative seeps through county schools, expected to grow as interest increases

Katelyn Waltemyer
Jackson Newspapers
Jackson County Superintendent Blaine Hess is hopeful that Project Lead the Way will expand over the years. Some Project Lead the Way classes in the county include computer science and engineering.

JACKSON COUNTY  Toni Burks never thought she'd be a teacher. She has a degree in computer science and was a software engineer for years. But things change, and that's what Project Lead The Way is all about  helping students find out what they want in their future careers. 

Jackson County Public Schools joined dozens of other K-12 institutions in West Virginia two years ago by adding Project Lead The Way (PLTW) courses to its curriculum. With the program, the county now offers engineering, computer science, energy and robotics courses in some of its schools.

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Burks, a math and PLTW teacher at Ravenswood High School, left her programming career due to health issues and started subbing part-time in the county years ago. Once she was in the school system, she couldn't ignore that students weren't getting opportunities she felt they deserved. 

"I noticed the kids here were really lacking those opportunities," she said. 

There weren't any computer science, engineering or other STEM-related courses science, technology, engineering and math — to introduce students to potential career paths. This desire to improve the education experience of Jackson County students inspired Burks to get her teaching certificate. 

Now she's halfway through her second year of teaching full-time. She spends half her day teaching math and the other teaching computer science. 

There are two types of students in Burks' computer classes. The first type is the avid video gamer. They love logging onto Minecraft during their free time and building their own world out of simple blocks. They want to become video game designers. 

Then class begins.

They aren't as engaged in the topic as they thought they'd be. It isn't what they thought it was. Even though Burks has a love for computer science and wants all of her students to appreciate it as well, she said it's just as rewarding watching students discover they don't want to become a computer scientists. 

Her son, like many young adults who go to college straight after high school, ended up switching his major and "wasted" his first year of college. PLTW offers an opportunity for students to figure out if what they think they want is actually what they want. 

"What they do learn is what it really means to be a computer scientist. And whether they want to do it or not, or pursue it or not," Burks said. "They're usually surprised by what they find  it's not what they thought."

She, along with Jackson County School's Superintendent Blaine Hess, said that students shouldn't have to throw away a year or two of college figuring out their career.

According to the U.S. Department of Education, one-third of college students enrolled in a bachelor's program change their majors. Only 41% of people with bachelor's degrees finish their school within four years, according to Education Data Initiative

The other type of student Burks has is the one who reluctantly took the class to fill up their schedule. They have no interest in computer science as they walk into class on the first day, but that quickly changes. They advance through tasks with ease and when they hit a bump, they can't wait to smooth it over to truly understand the concept. 

They leave the introductory computer science class signed up for the second course in computer science Burks teaches. 

Growing enthusiasm among students and teachers have driven PLTW to expand its services in the county. Starting off, Burks only had one computer science class last year. Now she has three. 

Unlike the technical center, PLTW serves as a way for students to get a foot into the door of a potential career with no strings attached. The technical center is typically reserved for juniors and seniors in high school who study to obtain a trade certificate like autobody repair or cosmetology. 

PLTW is relatively new to Jackson County, but the Indiana-based initiative has been around for more than a decade. Offering classes for grades K-12 in computer science, engineering and biomedical science, Lead The Way has partnered with more than 12,200 schools across the country. 

Each of its courses are project-based. Using kinesthetic learning, the courses focus on engaging students through hands-on activities, which is one of the reasons Hess was so adamant about bringing the program to Jackson County. 

"It's one thing to learn about something from a book and it made you learn those things, but when you put it into practice and become more excited about your learning, we think that that will be a big benefit of the program," Hess said. 

Since PLTW is still in the early phases in the county, Hess likes to call the teachers "explorers" for taking on a new task. For the high school classes, each instructor undergoes a yearly two-week-long training for the STEM class they teach. 

Ten teachers across the county teach the six PLTW classes offered. Hess said these baby steps to expand the program in the county will continue over the years.

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— Katelyn Waltemyer (she/her) is the General Assignment and Enterprise Reporter for Jackson Newspapers in Jackson County, West Virginia. Have a news tip on local government or education? Or a good feature? You can reach Katelyn at kwaltemyer@jacksonnewspapers.com. Follow her on Twitter @Kate_Waltemyer.