Van Buren’s Project Lead the Way Program garners national recognition

Thursday, November 12, 2020 12:25 am
Van Buren’s Project Lead the Way Program garners national recognition

The Van Buren School District’s (VBSD) commitment to promoting STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) education at all grade levels was recently recognized by the national “Project Lead the Way” (PLTW) program. VBSD was one of just 24 districts across the United States to receive the prestigious “Project Lead the Way Distinguished District” title. The PLTW recognition honors districts committed to increasing student access, engagement, and achievement in their respective programs.  Approximately 12,000 schools nationwide participate in the program, including many Arkansas districts, such as Bentonville, Springdale, Russellville, and Little Rock.

“This is the first time since we started our Project Lead the Way programs eight years ago, that we have had our entire district, including all elementary, middle and the high school campuses, recognized on this level,” said Dr. Joe McLean, Van Buren’s STEM Coordinator. “For this, we were required to have a high number of students participate in PLTW curriculum. The requirement is 75% for elementary, 50% for middle school, and 25% for high school, as well as to have at least 33% of students go on to take more PLTW classes in subsequent years. PLTW chose these numbers for a reason, as it is not easy to achieve this extent of student participation in every single grade level.” VBSD far exceeded the requirement, with nearly half of its students continuing to upper level PLTW courses. The District also had to demonstrate a commitment to improving participation by groups typically under-represented in STEM fields. “This is a great accomplishment for our District and a great example of how we are preparing our students for the future workforce.”

VBSD was notified of the award in late spring and recently installed banners at each campus to celebrate the achievement. Through PLTW programs, students develop in-demand knowledge and skills that they will use in school, careers, and beyond. As PLTW students progress through grades PreK-12, they are empowered to engage in problem-solving and process thinking, develop technical knowledge, build communication skills, and explore career opportunities.

“Our students who experience PLTW are much better problem solvers because of the engineering design process,” explained Van Buren STEM educator, Julia Cottrell. “Students work on a problem, solve part of it, reevaluate the problem, design another avenue, solve more or it, and continue this process until the problem is solved. This is the real world! There are always more questions discovered by the students as they work through the problems.”

Van Buren elementary teachers incorporate STEM using the program’s Launch module. “Kindergarteners design and build a tower that can hold weight. They get to choose what material they use, design their tower, build it, see how much weight it holds, then try the process all over again,” said Cottrell. “The excitement shown on their faces as they discover new ideas is priceless. Third grade students just finished studying the science of flight seeing how much cargo could be successfully transported from point A to point B on a plane they designed. This is the integration of science and math at its best!”

Educators teach science and computer science using the Gateway program at VBSD’s two middle schools. Lessons range from training students to be medical detectives to highlighting the “magic of electrons.” 

“Implementing the PLTW curriculum in our elementary and middle schools is critical to the success we are seeing at the high school, because kids are learning what engineering, coding, and the medical field are all about, before they start to think they should be scared of it,” said McLean. “It also plays a significant role in our efforts to getting those under-represented groups in these pathways.”

At each level, PLTW educators incorporate hands-on activities that give classes opportunities to experiment and challenge one another. Among the most popular events is the annual STEM Wars contest. Elementary students from throughout the District compete against their peers in a variety of robotics events.  

In the upper grades, students can take biomedical, engineering, and computer science courses, and participate in extracurricular programs such as robotics. The District also has a highly competitive Technology Student Association (TSA) team. Since its inception in 2017, VBSD has had students qualify to compete at the National TSA competition in events ranging from Engineering to Music Production and Video Game Design. In its first year, two Van Buren students placed second in the nation in Problem Solving. To date, the VBSD competitors are the only Arkansas students to have placed in the Top Ten in any category at nationals.

The continued growth and success of Van Buren’s PLTW program is due greatly in part to the educators who have worked diligently to make STEM relevant to students. “All of our PLTW teachers deserve credit for this recognition, as they help excite students about STEM,” said McLean. “These amazing teachers come up with creative ways of teaching the curriculum and making it applicable to students’ lives.”

McLean also credits the students and District for their eagerness to participate in PLTW. “Our students deserve credit for their willingness to take the plunge and learn how to solve problems and complete the hands-on labs and activities.  I’m proud that our District offers these types of beneficial experiences for our students. This gives them a chance to discover if they enjoy a particular field in high school, while there is no cost or tuition fees.” Students who opt to pursue a career in STEM have a head start advantage from their PLTW training. “Our students also develop confidence that’s crucial to finishing and getting a technical degree,” added McLean. “One former student at the U of A contacted me last year to say he was using dimensioning skills he learned in a ninth grade Introduction to Engineering class for his college senior design project. Now that’s pretty cool.”

Dr. Vince Bertram, President and CEO of PLTW echoed the value of STEM education and the role it plays in career development for Van Buren students. “It is a great honor to recognize the Van Buren School District for their commitment to providing students with an excellent educational experience,” said Bertram. “They should be very proud their work to ensure students have the knowledge and skills to be career ready and successful on any career path they choose.”

About Project Lead The Way
Project Lead The Way is a mission-driven organization that is transforming the learning experience for millions of PreK-12 students and thousands of teachers across the U.S. PLTW empowers students to develop in-demand, transportable knowledge and skills through pathways in computer science, engineering, and biomedical science. PLTW’s teacher training and resources support teachers as they engage their students in real-world learning. For more information on Project Lead The Way, visit