ALEXANDRIA – Early in the school year, when Alyssa Million entered biology teacher Brian Adams’ medical detectives class at Alexandria-Monroe Jr.-Sr. High School, she and her classmates were confronted by a body and a forensic mystery.
Since then, they have examined the scene for blood spatter and the body for signs of diabetes and sickle cell anemia in an attempt to determine the cause of death in a yearlong project class intended to enhance student involvement in science, technology, engineering and math education.
“In the end, they will put all of this together and determine her actual cause of death,” he said.
Alexandria’s high school is one of many schools in Madison County and surrounding communities that have partnered with Project Lead the Way to offer enhanced STEM education, such as computer science and biomedical classes, to students.
Established in 1997 in upstate New York but headquartered in Indianapolis since 2011, Project Lead the Way provides a comprehensive curriculum for engineering and biomedical sciences to more than 400,000 students nationwide. Reports show that 97 percent of the courses’ seniors intend to pursue a four-year degree or higher compared to the national average of 67 percent.
Adams describes the medical detectives class as a hybrid between health, anatomy, forensics and biology classes.
“It hits a broad spectrum of the sciences,” he said.
As many as 90 percent of the students in the medical detectives class also are taking Adams’ freshman biology class, thus getting a double dose of science. Adams, who is in his 14th year of teaching, his fourth at Alexandria-Monroe High School, said one of the objectives is to encourage students to continue to take two science courses throughout their high school years.
In order to teach the course, Adams said, he attended training in Orlando, Florida, with school Principal Tom Johns and the district’s superintendent, Melissa Brisco. He also has done additional training online.
“We actually have to be certified in every course that we teach,” he said.
Though it’s challenging to do sometimes, Adams said, one of the things he tries to do in the class is take off the reins and allow the students to make mistakes.
“By the end of the year, they are supposed to be more autonomous,” he said.
Some of the students already are taking control by trying to develop devices that can enhance the quality of life for people with diabetes. A couple of students are working on a diabetic watch and an insulin implant that could be used instead of a pump.
Many of the students plan careers in the sciences. For instance, when starting her sophomore year in August, Million had her sights set on becoming an emergency medical technician.
But since being placed into a Project Lead the Way biomedical class in the fall semester, Million, who admits being good at math but not so good at science, now is considering a career in forensic science.
“This is really different from biology. This is more broken down than biology,” she said. “You learn, like, a lot of things for being a young person.”
Johns said the school became involved in the curriculum as the district retools itself to guide students into career pathways, as required by state law. In their research, for instance, Johns and other district officials learned there are 650,000 computer science job openings nationwide, but at best, only 10 percent of graduates earn degrees in that field.
PLTW programming can start as early as elementary school. Though Alexandria schools start theirs at the intermediate level to maximize students’ exposure, Johns said he hopes one day it will start even earlier.
“All of it is exploratory project-based learning. The kids have a lot of fun in these classes. It’s not just skill and drill,” he said.
In addition to the state academic standards, students also learn soft skills, including teamwork, Johns said.
“That’s what our employers are wanting,” he said.
Eric Davis, principal at Anderson High School, said he believes Project Lead the Way offers many benefits to students and helps schools meet their accountability requirements.
“There are a lot of group projects students get to work in collaboration with their peers, and it’s not your conventional teaching lesson,” he said.
The curriculum may appeal initially to students who tend to be good in STEM subjects, but it helps all students through the hands-on opportunities to solve real-world challenges.
“That has been one of the biggest impacts here at the high school. We have some students who don’t feel they can be successful at math and science classes, but through PLTW, they feel they can be successful,” Davis said.
In addition, Davis said, many students fear going into STEM disciplines. Project Lead the Way allows students to learn about careers in the areas of math and science they may not have known existed and that play to their strengths, he said.
“PLTW helps bridge that gap and introduce all the opportunities that are out there for students in the area of STEM,” he said.
And the program helps students develop skills employers seek, such as critical thinking and collaboration, Davis said.
“Whether you’re working in a factory, whether you’re working in a hospital or working as a scientist, you need to have these skills,” he said.
Though he has no concrete numbers, Davis said he believes the program is a success because more AHS students are going into STEM majors when they enter college.
“I think it has helped the number of students who go into the STEM path, and it has helped female students,” he said. “I think these courses help to have an equal playing field for all students, male and female.”