Students as young as kindergartner are becoming engineers in Blue Springs.

They are sharing ideas, designing schematics and even putting hypotheses to the test.

Daniel Young Elementary is one of two elementary schools in Missouri in a pilot program to implement Project Lead the Way, a STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) education curriculum that helps students develop the skills needed to succeed in the global economy, according to PLTW’s website. The program is usually geared toward secondary grade levels, but now is being introduced to primary and intermediate age groupsl.

The school hosted a Project Lead the Way Day on Friday where representatives from other school districts as far as Wichita, Kan. and after-school programs, such as the Kaufman Foundation and YMCA, came to observe the curriculum in action.

“It’s 80 percent hands-on and 20 percent book and paper work,” said Daniel Young teacher Sandy Schunk on the types of PLTW lessons.

Depending on the grade level, students engage in a variety of hands-on learning modules that teach concepts such as simple machine efficiency, flight aerodynamics and even robotics and animation. Schunk’s classroom was investigating the differences between kinetic and potential energies by constructing toy cars holding eggs and determining how much damage they could withstand during a collision.

“(PLTW) is project-based group work where students are able to design processes in order to solve problems,” said Blue Springs district science instructional coach Chris Gibler. She also said she has been helping facilitate the program implementation by both training teachers and even assisting with instruction herself.

And besides giving students the opportunity to become better critical thinkers and problem solvers, Gibler said PLTW may pique a student’s interest in engineering or another related field.

“The need for science and technology skills is well-known to educators,” she added. “These fields will provide jobs in the future.”

Over the past five months at Daniel Young, six classrooms of each grade level were selected to incorporate PLTW lessons that took one or two hours a day and lasted one to two weeks. According to Gibler, the Blue Springs district originally submitted an application to the Indianapolis-based PLTW organization to become one of the first districts to introduce the program at the elementary level. They were later notified they have been selected to do so, and once Principal Ryan Crum got wind of the news, he jumped at the opportunity to have his school as the chosen elementary site, said Gibler. The district agreed.

Gibler also said getting students to learn the value of teamwork and collaboration is another PLTW objective. The stereotype among many of today’s engineers is that the word “cooperation” is a foreign concept.

Not only does PLTW let elementary students expand their math and technology knowledge, but it also hones their writing and reading abilities as well.

Take, for instance, Carl Trober’s fifth grade class at Daniel Young. His class has been designing functional robots that can perform specific tasks. In order to design the machines, students had to research various components and came across a lot of technical jargon throughout their findings.

“We encountered a hiccup during the research portion (of the module),” said Trober, “but that allowed us time to work on expanding their vocabularies and become better readers.”

He added that since today’s generation of kids are so technology savvy, his students had no problem utilizing an app on iPads that allowed them to research and design their robots. “They could alternate between the research and design functions of the app seamlessly.”

So, what about the student’s feedback?

“It has ignited their feelings about science,” said Crum about his students’ reception of the program. He said many students become disappointed once their class’s PLTW trial ends. “One fourth grade student was devestated once his simple machine module ended after its alloted time. This has become their favorite part of the day.”

“They (students) are amazed when they solve a problem or learn a concept,” Gilber said.

Daniel Young will not be the only elementary school in the district to have PLTW learning modules. Gibler said Chapel Lakes, Sunny Pointe, William Yates and James Lewis will have the program next school year as well.

With Grain Valley High School adding classrooms specificially for PLTW after a recent bond issue passing, Independence schools partnering with Ford Motor Company to create career academies with a similar focus and now Blue Springs elementary schools adopting the program, it appears that Eastern Jackson County schools are preparing for a STEM-based future.