Dec 26 2017

Q&A: Vince Bertram Leads the Way Toward STEM in Schools

Project Lead The Way's president and CEO says students should be engaged and excited about their futures and careers.

Vince Bertram is serious about education. In fact, he’s been on an educational journey his entire adult life — from studying education policy and management at Harvard University to serving as superintendent of Indiana’s third-largest urban school district.

Today, Bertram, also the best-selling author of Dream Differently: Candid Advice for America’s Students, is president and CEO of Project Lead The Way, a nonprofit provider of STEM educational programs used in elementary, middle and high schools around the country.

EdTech: Focus on K–12 Managing Editor Jena Passut chatted with Bertram about Project Lead The Way and how it fits with today’s technology-savvy classrooms.

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EDTECH: How did you first cross paths with Project Lead The Way?

Bertram: I am an educator and business leader, and my interest in Project Lead The Way began in 2001 when I was a high school principal and we implemented the program. I was impressed by how students were engaged and excited about how they were moving from low expectations and few aspirations to thinking about their futures and their careers. In 2011, I was approached to lead the national organization. At the time, we were at about 2,000 schools nationwide with around 300,000 students participating in our program annually, and we were training about 1,000 teachers a year.

Today, we’re in more than 10,500 schools. We’ve trained more than 55,000 teachers since we began in 1997, and there are millions of students who are participating in Project Lead The Way in classrooms today.

EDTECH: How does Project Lead The Way work?

Bertram: Project Lead The Way is an activity- and problem-based program in which students have to apply math and science to real-world problems.

There are five programs: an elementary Launch program, middle school Gateway program and three high school programs in engineering, biomedical science and computer science. Our programs are really designed to empower students and develop in-demand knowledge and transportable skills so students can thrive in an evolving world.

The other key piece is our teacher training and professional development. We believe that the best curriculum is nothing without a great teacher, so we invest heavily in teachers.

EDTECH: How does technology play a role?

Bertram: We deliver all of our curriculum through a digital platform, so we don’t use textbooks in our program. Starting in kindergarten, students use tablets or Android devices. We want students to learn how to use technology to advance learning. Technology is embedded in all of our courses, as well as with our teacher professional development.

EDTECH: What challenges are associated with preparing students for their college and professional lives?

Bertram: We want students to develop STEM skills that are transportable across all sectors because we’re finding that companies like General Motors are making computers for cars, and companies like Google are making cars. Almost all ­companies are becoming tech companies.

Our greatest challenge, then, is to make sure that we as an organization are very much aware of how technology is evolving, what the demands of the workforce are, and that we are adequately preparing our students to thrive in that evolving world.

People often say, “We’re preparing students for careers that don’t yet exist.” The reality is that out of 161 million people in the U.S. workforce, 9 out of 10 work in industries that existed 100 years ago. What has changed are the skills necessary for those jobs. Rather than trying to train students for a specific job, we really reduce that down to baseline skills. What are the skills necessary to succeed in any of those sectors?

EDTECH: How does Project Lead The Way prepare ­educators through ­professional development?

Bertram: If a teacher is accustomed to getting in front of a classroom and delivering information to students, we reverse that. Teachers have to understand that they may not have the answers to every question that students ask. We encourage that. We want to nurture students’ ­curiosity, so we teach things like ­questioning strategy. We want to deepen their knowledge and understanding of a subject.

EDTECH: Why is computer science an important subject in K–12 education?

Bertram: We need advanced computer science, and unfortunately, only about a quarter of our high schools offer computer ­science classes. Often, those courses lack rigor, or focus on computer use, or just offer coding instead of really getting into computer science principles. Only 18 percent of accredited schools offer advanced placement exams for computer science. We also have found large gender disparities in computer science, and we find the classes are more prevalent in affluent schools too.

Also, only 13 percent of the students who took AP computer science classes are Hispanic or black. We have to change this and ensure that all students have the skills they need to take advantage of the increasing opportunities in computer science. As an organization, we’re committed to providing high-quality computer science education to all students, and for us, it’s not just about coding.

Chris Bucher

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