Kingsland School Board members Steve Tart, left, and Deb Larson along with Project Lead the Way program director, outreach, Jim Mecklenburg watch Steve Anderson, who works with glass in the Division of Engineering at Mayo Clinic. A group took a tour of Mayo’s engineering department Monday to see what kind of research and development is being done.
Kingsland School Board members Steve Tart, left, and Deb Larson along with Project Lead the Way program director, outreach, Jim Mecklenburg watch Steve Anderson, who works with glass in the Division of Engineering at Mayo Clinic. A group took a tour of Mayo’s engineering department Monday to see what kind of research and development is being done.
Kingsland is the first school district in Minnesota to achieve three national certifications in Project Lead the Way (PLTW) programs as a result of the recently completed three-step approval process from the national non-profit educational organization.

The local district received national certification for its Project Lead The Way programs in three areas: Pathway to Engineering; Biomedical Sciences; and Gateway To Technology, which is at Kingsland Middle School/Junior High and includes the summer Gateway Academy Program for students in grades four through six.

The school district was expected to receive three Project Lead the Way banners to hang in honor of the accomplishments when Thor Misko, a Project Lead the Way official, flew in from the organization's headquarters in Indianapolis to make the presentation Monday at the Kingsland School Board. The meeting was held after this edition of the Tribune went to press, so details from the presentation Monday night will be in next week's edition.

Kingsland is forming partnerships with several area businesses, including Mayo Clinic, which hosted a tour for PLTW and Kingsland staff Monday afternoon before the board meeting. Mayo Clinic is a partner in both the engineering and biomedical programs. April Horne, section head of Mayor Clinic Division of Engineering, was also expected to speak at Monday's presentation.

"We're excited about this," Superintendent John McDonald told the Vision 21 group Friday morning. "We worked very hard on this and we challenged the teachers. I can't say enough good things about our staff."

Students who enroll in PLTW courses benefit from an innovative curriculum that encourages creativity and critical thinking. They also benefit from the organization's strong university and industry relationships that allow students to begin working toward a college degree and gain valuable experience through internships and local business executives who serve as mentors.

Soon after McDonald arrived in 2010, he met with the staff and the consensus was to go forward on PLTW, which was created in 1986 in upstate New York to address the country's need for more rigorous education in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). It has since expanded to all 50 states.

Although the staff was excited at the start, the teachers were in for a lot of work, noted McDonald. Teachers must complete a two-week training session during the summer in order to teach a PLTW course. These professional development courses involve 10- to 12-hour days with sessions going right through the weekend. Kingsland teachers have attended sessions at Milwaukee School of Engineering, University of Illinois-Chicago, University of Minnesota, Minnesota State University in Mankato and St. Could State University.

The program at Kingsland started after the district received a $65,000 grant, which was used to invest in training and startup equipment. The mid-level Gateway program was started for fourth to ninth grade students, who still take their regular math and science classes. McDonald told Vision 21 members that the PLTW programs supplement the regular curriculum rather than replace existing classes.

The engineering program was then implemented, followed by the biomedical program, with the number of choices for these electives that qualify for college credits growing each year.

The three-step certification process involves a self-assessment, site visit and final report that must meet the rigorous standards, which include professional development of teachers and counselors, implementation of curriculum and the formation of a partnership team. A certification group spent two days at Kingsland two weeks ago observing students and staff and interviewing various parties, including business partners and community residents.

"I look at it as an educational audit," said McDonald.

The primary purposes of the certification program are to recognize schools that have successfully demonstrated a commitment to the quality national standards of the PLTW programs and to provide an opportunity for students to apply for college credit at PLTW affiliate universities for selected PLTW courses. PLTW has more than 68 affiliate college and university partners that offer students credit for completing PLTW courses in high school, including the University of Minnesota along with several other state colleges and nationally known universities such as Duke, Iowa State, Milwaukee School of Engineering, Purdue and Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT).

Minnesota has about 75 certifications for the state's districts, although few are in southeastern Minnesota, which has a couple at schools in Rochester and one in Byron. Two other area districts have started the process.

Only one other school district in Minnesota is certified in the biomedical program - Woodbury East. The lead teacher, who McDonald noted has said the training was so intense, she cried, now has her program up for a national award.

Kingsland's teacher working in the biomedical program, Brad Reiter, didn't cry, but he also found the training intense. His students are now working on projects that most people would never have imagined taking place in high school classrooms. For instance, when the certification team visited, the students had several wires attached to their arms leading to their netbooks for them to take readings of their vital functions, such as an electrocardiogram (ECG).

"This is transformational education," exclaimed Horne, according to McDonald.

Younger students in Wykoff are doing projects such as building rockets and learning about space flight.

At the high school, after two-and-a-half years since the PLTW program has been in existence, the district now offers 64 classes for college credit. Although there is a cost for these classes, McDonald explains that the district was losing substantial money from students leaving the district to attend post secondary enrollment options (PSEO) at outside institutions. The net gain is positive for the district, and not just in finances as students remain involved in student life at the local school.

The district has even provided some in-house perks for students pursuing college level courses. A conference room has been converted to a student union with couches and other comfortable furniture that has functional attachments for study. Students are allowed to use the room during the school day for a certain number of hours depending on how many college level courses they are taking.

Though the room has a casual look, when McDonald has popped in, the students are always busy with their studies. They assured him it wasn't a show for his benefit.

These students may get the luxury of time off to spend in the student union, but they also know "they're expected to do more," said McDonald. To get college credit, they must pass the final test, something only just more than 50 percent of students nationally do.

"It's tough," McDonald said.