5th Graders Find Their Own Answers in Project Lead the Way

When nuclear waste needs to be removed from the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant in Japan, who's up for the job? How about fifth graders from C.R. Weeks Elementary School?

They have spent the year designing and building robots that can identify and remove blocks of simulated "nuclear waste" on the floor of Eileen Mulcahy's classroom. The undertaking is part of Project Lead the Way, the District's effort to develop a K-12 engineering pipeline.

"They're definitely more critical thinkers. They're not looking for instant answers," said fifth-grade teacher Lindsey Hendricks. "Failure isn't a negative. They're more interested in problem solving."

"It's very hard," said fifth grader McKenzie Mead. "You learn from your mistakes."

"It takes teamwork," said fifth grader Ariel Bleil.

Mulcahy explains that the lesson begins at the start of the school year with specific instruction, then less so as the year goes along.

"They'll come to me and say, 'My engine doesn't work.' I'll say, 'Yeah, so how do you fix it?' said Mulcahy. "The process is more important than the final product. We're seeing that idea carry over to other classes as well. What do we need to know about the problem that we don't know already/"

This is the first year the District has implemented Project Lead the Way lessons in grades K-5. These fifth graders will move on to Design and Modeling and Computer Science in sixth grade. Then it's back to Robotics in 7th grade before an Introduction to Trades Course in 8th grade. Also in 8th grade for the first time in September there will be an Agriculture Engineering course. 

In high school students can choose to earn college credit from their PLTW courses. Students can earn three credits each from the Rochester Intitute of Technology in Introduction to Engineering Design, Civil Engineering and Architecture, Principals of Engineering, and Digital Electronics.

Students must have at least an 85 average and score 6 or better (on a scale of 9) on a PLTW test at the end of the semester. They must also pay for the credits, though at a greatly reduced price than if they were taking those courses at RIT.

"I've run into kids at other places - and I'm talking SUNY Broome, Clarkson, Cornell, Binghamton University - who come up to me and say PLTW really helped them with their technical education," said high school technology teacher Mark Wentka.

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