Teachers learning the drill

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Esther Cepeda
Thursday, July 28, 2011
— An elite group of teachers across the country is finishing the last grueling days of a hard-core, brain-splitting, tear-inducing boot camp in science, technology, engineering and math.

Teachers from all 50 states and the District of Columbia are attending training institutes put on annually by Project Lead the Way, a nonprofit organization that provides STEM curriculum programs to middle and high schools across the country.

The concepts that Project Lead the Way expects students to learn during the school year are rigorous -- pupils get hands-on experience in robotics, aerospace and biomedical engineering projects. The instruction is so rigorous that teachers, many of whom do not have advanced knowledge in the STEM fields, are provided a two-week summer ultra-intensive immersion program unlike anything they've done before.

"There is quite a range of levels of expertise that the teachers bring with them," Steve Rogers, a summer teacher trainer and an engineering and technology education teacher at Walker Career Center in Indianapolis, told me. "Some teachers show up very excited and knowledgeable, others have no idea what they are in for and, yes, it does cause teachers to cry. Not because they're mad at you, but they've never had professional development like this or been asked to perform at this level for this long a session. That's quite a shock to a lot of people."

Now, don't think I was attracted to this particular summer training camp because I like the idea of making teachers cry. But I do love the idea that schools across the country are taking seriously the notion that it is not only their job, but their responsibility, to provide students with a world-class 21st century STEM education that also expects -- and equips -- teachers to perform at higher levels than they ever have before.

Plus, I like to do all I can to eradicate the image that entitled, public-money-sucking teachers get "summers off." It's true that too many instructors out there aren't yet preparing for the coming school year because it takes no effort to copy last year's worksheets. But my experience is there are way more who spend the month of July either in formal training or doing other things to liven up the coming year's classes.

What better way than to be a student?

"When I went through it the first time, the one thing that happened to all of us regardless of our skill level was that you immediately took on the role of the student, which, for a teaching professional, is a little bit disconcerting because you haven't been in that role for a while," said Lori Lovett, a high school biomedical science teacher at Red River Technology Center in Duncan, Okla. "But the trainers made themselves available for extra sessions, and offered us all the same extra time and resources we'd need to give in our own classrooms."

Bill Rae, a science and engineering teacher at Lake Fenton Middle School in Michigan who completed the program and eventually became a summer trainer, told me that the technical expertise the educators learn is the main attraction. But the immersion in team-based projects, which is the way almost all subjects are supposed to be taught these days, is what sticks most with the boot camp graduates.

"Teachers leave here knowing exactly what their students will go through and it gives them a chance to get that feeling back of 'oh yeah, this is what it's like to learn and to get a new perspective,'" Rae said. "One thing that's nice is that here, like in real science and real life, we don't have to have all the answers -- but we can find where to get the answers and it's OK to tell the students 'we'll learn together.'"

Project Lead the Way is just one example of how schools are solving the problem of providing crucial STEM subject matter in environments where teachers may not know enough to make such challenging material come alive and students rarely get opportunities to immerse themselves in highly demanding lessons so engaging that they come to love the hard work required to master them.

Making these programs widely available isn't rocket science. Once the question of how to fund excellent curriculums is answered, it just takes educators with a desire to go the extra mile and the willingness to step outside their own comfort zones.

Esther Cepeda's email address is estherjcepeda@washpost.com.

Last updated: 5:48 pm Thursday, December 13, 2012

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