By Vanessa Stratton, Vice President of Programs for Project Lead The Way


The world is evolving quickly, and students today must be prepared to solve the problems of our future. Many of our most daunting challenges involve the environment and a growing population – agricultural and food sustainability; delivering safe, clean drinking water to communities; and best practices for building and growing our world’s infrastructure. Students across the U.S. are exploring these issues and more through Project Lead The Way (PLTW) programs.


PLTW provides a transformative learning experience for students and teachers through K-12 pathways in computer science, engineering, and biomedical science. The PLTW curriculum helps students build a strong foundation in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM), but also empowers them to develop transferable skills such as the ability to think critically and creatively, solve problems, communicate, and collaborate. Through hands-on activities and projects, students not only learn about challenges and problems, but actively seek solutions.


Throughout the PLTW K-12 Engineering Pathway, students explore various topics associated with the environment. In PLTW Launch, elementary school students explore how the surface of the earth is always changing, how animal adaptations are linked to survival, and how the sun affects skin when playing outside. At the middle school and high school levels, two full courses focus on the environment– Green Architecture in PLTW Gateways (middle school) and Environmental Sustainability in PLTW Engineering (high school).


In Green Architecture, middle school students learn how to apply the concept of “green living” to the fields of architecture and construction by exploring dimensioning, measuring, and architectural sustainability as they design housing. They learn how to plan spaces and choose materials, specifically green materials, within a budget. While insulation may not be too exciting itself, teaming it up with an activity that allows students to understand how it affects a home and ultimately the environment, provides an exciting and real-world context.


Sandy Jensen teaches Green Architecture at Avalon Middle School in Orlando, Florida, and enjoys teaching students how architectural practices affect the environment.


“Each class always brings a new and different view to the subject material, and the students never cease to surprise me with their creativity,” he said.


This approach to teaching about architecture allows students to apply what they are learning to real-world issues too. They learn about Greensburg, Kansas, a city that was completely rebuilt based on green principles after a storm destroyed much of its infrastructure. Through this real-world example, students see how building materials and infrastructure can impact a community.


The course concludes with a design challenge in which students must redesign a shipping container to be used as shelter after a natural disaster. The project allows them to think about opportunities and challenges in their own environments, and how to best use limited resources. In the Northeast, students have to consider what insulation would be best for extreme cold, while students in the South need to consider the effect of humidity levels on building materials.


While Green Architecture allows students to learn about opportunities to make architecture more sustainable, high school students in Environmental Sustainability explore the greatest challenges we face as a global society, and expand on the experience by thinking through solutions and the ethical components of issues.


Environmental Sustainability allows students to think critically about food security and the implications of a growing world population. It also provides students an opportunity to think about issues outside their own communities. Students living in cities learn about the vital role of farming and food production, while students from more rural areas gain perspective on how large cities deliver food and water. More broadly, students learn about resources, like what goes into producing clean water and what happens to water once it is used.


Students also learn how millions of people around the world do not have access to clean water, and how in many third world countries the task of traveling for water belongs to women and children. Those children are unable to go to school, which adds to the cycle of poverty. Environmental Sustainability provides students an opportunity to discuss these broad social issues.


Throughout the course, students work together to solve a problem facing the environment. They learn that a team of ideas and effort can create innovative solutions that have real impact on the world in which they live.


“Students learn about solar energy, biofuel, food insecurity, and drinking water issues while also exploring several engineering fields,” said Keagan O’Mara, who teaches Environmental Sustainability at Bio-Med Science Academy in Rootstown, Ohio. “We are able to have very deep and insightful discussions in class about how to reduce our resource usage and be more efficient in our daily lives, and I think students are able to see very clearly how their personal and family decisions make an impact on our planet.”


At the end of the course, O’Mara challenges his students to “reinvent energy” by identifying a problem and solving it. Last year, students Amber Cocchiola and Emma Kiko designed a board game that educates players on geothermal energy as a renewable source. The gameplay allows players to choose between energy sources based on financial resources and explore the pros and cons of all methods.


“I really enjoyed thinking of and creating my board game,” Cocchiola said. “The instructions [in Environmental Sustainability] were vague enough for each person to create whatever they wanted while still being structured so that everyone knew the expectations.”


Across the country, over 120 schools offer Environmental Sustainability and over 450 schools offer Green Architecture. Through these opportunities, a generation of students who have grown up in a “green-conscious” world are learning how they can make the world a better place.


About the Author

Vanessa Stratton is the Vice President of Programs for Project Lead The Way. With ten years of teaching experience, a B.A. in Biology from the University of Colorado, and a master’s degree in education from Regis University, Vanessa brings a wealth of expertise in instructional design, product design and development, and project management. In her current role, she provides the leadership and management necessary to develop and deliver world-class learning experiences.