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CMS STEM course offers new learning experience

A new STEM-based curriculum at Central Middle School ensures that all District 124 students are exposed to new, innovative courses in the areas of science, technology, engineering, and math.
The District is now working with Project Lead The Way, a nonprofit organization that provides a transformative learning experience for students and teachers across the country. Specifically, CMS has adopted PLTW’s “Gateway” program that empowers middle school students to lead their own discovery by boosting classroom engagement and encouraging collaboration among classmates.
"We were looking for more elective choices for our middle-school students. Project Lead the Way was brought to our attention and after researching this, we felt it would be an awesome opportunity for our students," D124 Curriculum Director and Interim CMS Principal Kathleen Prado said. "The level of collaboration and engagement that is observed in this class is amazing. I am so proud of the students and how well they can articulate what they are doing and why."
At the start of the 2019-2020 school year, Central began offering its first PLTW course: Design and Modeling. Two additional classes will be introduced for seventh and eighth-graders over the next two years, which will give CMS students the opportunity to complete three STEM courses with three different concentration areas throughout their tenure at Central.
In preparation for teaching the new Design and Modeling course, CMS STEM Teacher Amy Parisi and Technology Coach Kathleen Dunneback traveled to Denver over the summer to complete a weeklong training session. The training allowed the two educators to step into the role of students, as they were led through the unit by a master teacher, in the same way Parisi now leads her students through the course.
“The format allowed me to fully understand the expectations and skills this course requires, which enables me to help my students as they navigate through the curriculum,” Parisi said. “I’m looking forward to attending future training sessions as we expand the STEM program at Central.”
During the Design and Modeling course, students learn and utilize methods for communicating design ideas through sketches, solid models, and mathematical models. They then work in teams to identify design requirements, research topics, and engage stakeholders. Those teams are then tasked with designing a toy or game for a child with cerebral palsy. The toys are tested and students make necessary modifications to optimize the design solution.
The students in the class have provided nothing but positive feedback.
“I like that we get to be hands-on with projects that are different,” one student said. “It’s challenging but fun at the same time."
“We can really be creative. It’s more up to your imagination than anything else,” another student added.
As the courses and program continue to evolve over time, the District will continue to look for more ways to implement STEM across the curriculum – at both the middle school and elementary school levels. Down the road, the PLTW program could lead to the development of an advanced science program in D124, aligning with the gifted math and reading programs that already exist.
"One of the goals in working with Project Lead the Way was to help us determine the learner characteristics that might support a more advanced course of scientific inquiry at the middle school level,” D124 Superintendent Dr. Robert Machak said. “Some parents have requested a different kind of science class that offers more depth and rigor than our current curriculum. We are attempting to honor these requests; just as with our advanced math and language arts courses, we are looking for student indicators that might help us develop the profile of a student who could be successful in such a class."
"Whether it's assessment data, passion for a particular area of science, the ability to work in a cooperative setting with peers to solve a real-life problem, or intangible qualities like 'grit' and 'persistence', there are a number of somewhat non-traditional characteristics that the middle school science teachers feel that someone participating in an advanced science class should possess. We think that this class could provide some insight in this area, as these characteristics don't necessarily line up neatly with the criteria we have in place for our Project TREE math and language arts programs.”
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