How to keep students awake in class

By Susan Pohorski

It’s an age-old problem that has challenged teachers forever. How do you keep students awake and engaged in a classroom setting? 

Students soldering wires to prototype.Several Elkhorn High School students took on this problem as the capstone project for their Engineering Design Development class. The students conducted research, designed prototype products and tested the products until they felt they had a viable answer. 

Their product is a pen that vibrates when the user has been inactive for a certain time period. Nod off and your pen will wake you. 

A new way of teaching and learning
Hundreds of Wisconsin high schools and middle schools from Appleton to Winneconne are using activity-, project- and problem-based curriculum developed by Project Lead the Way (PLTW) to help students develop skills they need for success in post-secondary education and beyond.  As a result, students rarely fall a sleep during class. 

Since 2009, Elkhorn Area School District (EASD) has implemented PLTW curriculum throughout all levels to teach science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). Courses cover biomedical science, computer science and engineering concepts. EASD is one of only two districts in the country where every student has access to PLTW curriculum. 

“PLTW courses are very engaging and reach students with different learning styles,” commented Jason Tadlock, superintendent of the EASD. “Kids see the relevance of math and science in real life.” 

Second grade students engineer a device for planting seeds. Fourth graders create vehicles and put them through crash testing. In fifth grade, the students learn to build and operate robots. 

“We hear consistent feedback from employers who look for PLTW students because of their academic and teamwork skills,” Tadlock added. 

Business partners with schools
The district also has a unique partnership with a major employer in the area. In 2012 Precision Plus, Inc. invited 24 area educators to tour their facilities to discuss the career possibilities available for high school graduates. The school district also hosts an annual Manufacturing Career Panel discussion for students sponsored by Precision Plus. Representatives of Elkhorn area employers discuss the state of industry and the possibilities manufacturing offers. This year Mike Reader, president of Precision Plus, moderated the discussion. 

Students who toured local manufacturing facilities asked if they could have internships with the companies. 

“We had 10 student interns the first year,” said Barry Butters, director of education and training for Precision Plus, who was hired to coordinate and grow the program. He teaches some of the PLTW engineering courses, including the one mentioned above. 

“Mike Reader is a true visionary,” Butters explained. “He saw the need to develop a talent pipeline and engage the schools.”

With the partnership of Precision Plus and a grant from the Kern Foundation, teachers from the Elkhorn Area School District attended PLTW training.

Female student using technology to measure parts.Work skills, life skills
“Project Lead the Way makes better thinkers and problem solvers,” Butters adds. “When young students understand they can make things and solve problems, they will go far in life.” 

Chris Trottier, principal of Elkhorn High School enthusiastically supports the new style of learning for his students. 

“Kids develop skills to enter the workforce,” he said. “Like problem solving and critical thinking.” 

Tadlock points out that students in these classes learn to take risks and learn from their mistakes. “Kids come out ahead when they can overcome trials. That skill carries over into the world of work,” he continued. 

Does your school use project-, activity- and problem-based curriculum? Employers want job candidates who are thinkers and problem solvers. 

“Challenge businesses to get involved,” Butters urged parents. “Schools cannot do it alone with the fiscal constraints they are under.” 

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