Area schools’ technology programs nationally recognized

NEW BERLIN — Sarah Beard’s students took solving a puzzle cube to a whole new level.
They went beyond its pieces to its makeup.

The New Berlin High School students were more interested in what made the pieces work than in putting the cube back together. The engineering class had studied dimensions and weight. They’d analyzed the production costs and potential profit margin.

Projects like this and teachers like Beard have put the New Berlin School District among success stories with Project Lead the Way and its junior high counterpart, Gateway to Technology. Sean Lynch, with the National Association for Career and Technical Education, recognized the district on Wednesday as one of the leaders in the area for engineering education.

“These programs are teaching really advanced skills at really early ages,” Lynch said. “It’s really providing a more robust educational experience for them … They’re the gold standard, and they’re really promising examples. And they’re growing quickly.”

Lynch along with Mary Jo Wood, director of the Regional Office of Career and Technical Education, toured the New Berlin, Pana and Pleasant Plains programs on Wednesday.

The Gateway to Technology initiative began in New Berlin in 2008 and then recently expanded to include Project Lead the Way last school year. Lynch aimed to bring back knowledge of what works from these programs to the national association in Washington, D.C., and New Berlin gave him along with Cindy Stover of the Illinois Association for Career and Technical Education quite the tour.

The team visited with middle school students who were building model drag racers and high school students who were preparing to use software to design model trains. They saw how Beard took the Project Lead the Way curriculum on the puzzle cube and expanded upon it to fill other needs within the district.

“I take what we’re doing and add a little bit extra,” Beard explained. “We don’t have any business or marketing classes in the high school anymore, and I try to cover that ground by adding it here as well.”

Cassie Clair, an eighth-grader in the program, showed the team a model she built that simulated how a car would travel from a home to a movie theater. She and her classmates had used software to program and time the vehicle’s stops and starts. She talked about how they worked together to figure out the answers, and how her teacher guided them through critical thinking but let them determine the outcome themselves.

“I like figuring how the programming works, and then actually making it work like you want it to,” Clair said.

Joe Kindred, who helped launch New Berlin’s Gateway to Technology class, said New Berlin’s program stands apart because it welcomes students of all skill levels. The project-heavy program can help students see how math and science skills apply to real life. The practical application is often more attainable to struggling students than merely reading the theory in a book. He believes that hands-on experience gives students of all levels an opportunity to and interest in pursuing an engineering career.

“All of a sudden they want to come to class,” Kindred said. “They have that awe factor … We get them thinking about constructing something, designing something, and then if it doesn’t work, then working together to figure out why.”

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