Elkhorn Area School District leading the way

Luke Schopf (on the left) and Gurleen Kaur, fifth grade students at West Side Elementary School, Elkhorn, discuss the human body as part of a Project Lead The Way program. The Elkhorn Area School District was recently recognized as a PLTW Distinguished District, one of just over 30 across districts across the United States to receive this honor.

Recently earned distinguished honor for its STEM, career learning

By Heather Ruenz

SLN staff

Elkhorn Area School District was recently recognized as a Project Lead The Way Distinguished District for providing access to transformative learning opportunities for its students through PLTW programs. The EASD is one of just over 30 districts nationwide to receive the honor.

PLTW is a nonprofit organization that serves millions of students in kindergarten through 12th grade, and teachers, in more than 10,500 schools across the U.S.

Jason Tadlock, district administrator, said he and the staff are proud of the exceptional STEM opportunities available for their students district-wide.

The PLTW Distinguished District recognition honors districts committed to increasing student access, engagement, and achievement in their PLTW programs. To be eligible for the designation, EASD had to have had 20 percent or more of its students in each grade participate in a PLTW program during the 2016-17 school year. The fact that 100 percent of students in grades K-8 are involved in PLTW programs is particularly unique and exceptional.

Through PLTW programs, students develop STEM knowledge as well as in-demand, transportable skills that they will use both in school and for the rest of their lives, on any career path they take. As PLTW students progress through grades K-12, they are empowered to engage in problem solving and process thinking, develop technical knowledge and skills, build communication skills, and explore career opportunities.

EASD offers PLTW Launch (K-5), PLTW Gateway (6-8), and PLTW Computer Science, Engineering, and Biomedical Science at all its schools.

“It is a great honor to recognize Elkhorn Area School District for its commitment to students,” said Vince Bertram, President and CEO of PLTW. “These educators are leaders in what school should look like, and they should be very proud of ensuring students have the knowledge and skills to be career ready and successful on any career path they choose.”

Eryca Card, the PLTW coordinator for grades K-8 in the EASD, is a master teacher so helps train staff at other districts for the Launch program. She said the PLTW has transformed the schools in Elkhorn.

“Kids learn more because it’s hands-on. The collaboration, not just between the students but also between the kids and their teachers, has been great to see,” she said.

Card has been involved in taking students to the state convention each year and last year a group went to the national summit in Orlando, Fla. She said those trips are an example of what’s taking place in the local district.

“People say to me, ‘You took kindergarten students?’ And the fact that they may have done a project in the fall but remember it in the spring when presenting is a testament to the learning,” she said.

“It’s not just academics but life skills, especially with some of the presentations because it also addresses what they should wear, how they should introduce themselves, those types of things,” Card added.

She said being involved with PLTW has helped her as a teacher – a sentiment she’s also heard from other staff. It’s also made a difference at the kids’ homes.

“We hear stories about how they get in the car and when asked what they did at school, used to say ‘nothing.’ Since we started this we’ve had many parents tell us their kids immediately begin talking about their PLTW projects,” she said.


A parent’s view

Esther Weitzel has three sons: twins, Samuel and Joshua are in first grade at Tibbets Elementary School and Logan is a sixth grader at Elkhorn Area Middle School.

Weitzel said she has seen a notable difference in her children because of PLTW.

“Gone are the days of wrote memorization and one-room schoolhouses, and for good reason. I remember having to memorize the names the different colors of algae in high school science. Regurgitating something you memorized is far from mastering a subject,” she said.

Weitzel said there is now extensive research on the brain, how it works and how humans learn and in today’s world, children need to be adaptive, diverse, on-their-feet thinkers and consequence processors.

“It’s about time that our modern school curriculum reflects this new-found research,” she said.

Weitzel said Project Lead The Way excites her kids about science.

“It sparks a discussion at the dinner table about what my boys did that day in school. It turns memorizers into problem solvers, and fosters tenacious learners. This is something that my boys will take with them for the rest of their life. It is a vital skill in this global, changing world,” she said.

One of the keys, Weitzel said, is that students are actively learning and the lessons are student-centered versus teacher-centered.

“This helps students own the learning process. My boys not only have fun learning, but confidence is a byproduct of this curriculum. They have fun collaborating with peers to figure out solutions to a problem. They make fake casts for bones while learning about the human body, and build airplanes when learning about Bernoulli’s principle of aerodynamics,” she said.

“Best of all, they learn that making mistakes and failing is part of the scientific process. They don’t give up when their first attempt crashes to the ground,” Weitzel added. “My boys have a whole different perception of school than mine as a child… and I am so very grateful for that.”


First graders at Jackson Elementary School are all smiles while working together on a Project Lead The Way program. The school district offers programs to all students in kindergarten through high school and was recently honored as a distinguished district for its example.

The kids weigh in

Lucas Wagner and Autumn Reynolds, both fourth grade students at West Side Elementary School, shared some insights about PLTW.

Wagner said he enjoys building things.

“I like controlling the remote and helping out others. When you work with a team you get more done and make buddies,” Wagner said.

Reynolds said one of her favorite projects used a bike and pulleys they had built.

“We had to use it to get the food out of the truck and into the pantry,” she said, adding that though she likes to work independently, she shares things she understands with other students.

Aren Gonzalez, an eighth grade student at EAMS, said the PLTW project she enjoyed the most had personal meaning.

“Project Lead The Way helped me invent a thermo sensor hay elevator to prevent barn fires by detecting a heated bale. It’s a real-world problem because I live on a dairy farm outside of town,” she said.

Gonzalez said helping other students through PLTW is one of her favorite things about the programs.

“It takes a team and a bunch of different ideas to get things to work,” she said.

Gonzalez said PLTW is helping students because rather than a step-by-step process similar to regular classes, it’s an opportunity to come up with ideas.

“It challenges you because you can take things to a higher level. It’s opened my mind and changed my mindset about school,” she said.

Though not even in high school yet, Gonzalez said being involved in PLTW has helped her narrow down possible future plans.

“I’d like to go into agricultural engineering but also have an interest in education because I like to help others,” she said.

Asked to share what they enjoy most about PLTW, a group of Elkhorn Area High School students offered a variety of responses.

Nathan Chapman, a senior, said the Engineering Design & Development course is his favorite.

“You identify a problem and find a solution to it. We figured out that cars are inefficient and are attempting to get rid of alternators because it’s such a draw on the engine, for example,” Chapman said.

“It’s all very open. It’s a real-world experience and teaches us what it would be like to be an engineer,” senior Cade Fink added.

Teyatzin Aranda, also a senior, said he enjoys working with others on projects.

“If you’re doing it alone, you only have your ideas but together you bounce them off each other. It creates a better foundation for learning and finding solutions,” Aranda said.

PLTW has also helped the students prepare for college and figure out a career path.

“It definitely helps you prepare for college,” sophomore Rachel Gottschalk said.

“And it’s helpful that problems can be applied to the workforce or if you’re going into college,” junior Paige Murphy added.

Alyssa Sands, a senior planning to pursue nursing as a major with a minor in anthropology, said she’s followed the PLTW biomedical pathway and the credits will transfer to college.

Fink said he got involved in PLTW with a push from a teacher.

“It’s the best thing that happened to me. Now, I know this is something I want to do for the rest of my life,” he said.


Staff are inspired

Barry Butters, the PLTW 9-12 grade coordinator in the EASD, said the program has seen a major increase in participation with 102 more kids taking classes this year than last year.

“We started with one class and from there it’s been an explosion because kids want to learn and hands-on is the way to go. All of it is geared to explore, design and implement. The district’s commitment has been huge. Some of the costs are reasonable while others are pricey but once you have the materials you’re set,” he said.

Wendy Ellsworth and Tim Franz, fourth grade teachers at West Side Elementary, said PLTW has changed their approach to teaching, in a good way.

“We go through things but then let the kids take it from there,” Franz said.

“A lot of times, they teach us things. There are very few kids that don’t want to participate. It’s hands-on and there’s a lot of collaboration,” Ellsworth said.

She said with the EASD being one of the few districts to offer PLTW for all ages, students see a different side of it because of tours at their school.

“When we have groups come through, we often have them talk to the students. The kids are great at explaining what they’re working on and it’s really impressed people,” Franz said.

“And it’s helped kids that maybe didn’t realize what they were capable of, not only learn but be able to share it with others,” Ellsworth added.

She said it’s great to see students engaged.

“They’re building and designing and working together,” Ellsworth said.

“If something doesn’t work, it’s usually that they didn’t follow directions so they go back and figure out what they missed. And they want to figure it out,” Franz added.

For more information about Elkhorn Area School District’s PLTW programs or to schedule a school visit contact Jason Tadlock at 262-723-3160, ext. 1401.

For more information about Project Lead The Way visit pltw.org.

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