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Leading the Way: A Conversation with Vince Bertram

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By Cecilia Elmore and Cheryl Hanzlik

"It will be a game changer when people realize skills are more important than degrees and this becomes the national conversation." Wait, what? Who said that? Dr. Vince Bertram, President and CEO of Project Lead The Way, is a passionate voice for improving education to inspire students in areas that will positively affect their lives, their decisions, and their careers, not to mention our country's workforce and economy as a result. Bertram is a well-respected and sought after thought leader in education and STEM issues. Read more to see how his experience and beliefs shape his vision and his work ...

The Back Story

Vince Bertram's passion and commitment for Project Lead The Way (PLTW) and STEM is evident in his voice. His career path, while a natural fit, was unexpected. His passion started early in his career as he always had a keen interest in the workforce, the economy and skills as they related to education. Bertram earned his doctorate, specialist, master's, and bachelor's degrees from Ball State University. Additionally, he earned a master's degree in Education Policy and Management from Harvard University, and an Executive Certificate in Strategy and Innovation from the MIT Sloan School of Management. Bertram is an alumnus of the Chicago Management Institute at the University of Chicago's Booth School of Business, and received an honorary Doctorate in Engineering from the Milwaukee School of Engineering.

When Bertram became a high school principal, he helped create career pathways that really focused on student skill development to prime students for great career opportunities. When he was introduced to PLTW in 2001, he immediately implemented the program in his high school. "We saw what I believed to be a transformative experience. Our students were doing well under the program and they were graduating with important skill sets."

Becoming the Leader of Project Lead The Way (PLTW)

Bertram spent time as a teacher, principal, and superintendent, serving as the superintendent for Indiana's third largest urban school district before being given the opportunity in 2011 to lead PLTW's national organization. Bertram accepted the opportunity for a couple of reasons. "I saw an opportunity to make a difference to improve education in our country and change the way teachers teach and students learn." He added, "I am also really concerned about our economy and our global competiveness. We have to provide for and make sure we are building an education pipeline that is robust and will help lead our country in the future." Since 2011, Dr. Vince Bertram has led PLTW to unprecedented growth. Under his leadership, PLTW has grown to serve more than 6,500 schools nationwide, trained thousands of teachers throughout the country, increased partner and sponsor support, and received numerous national recognitions and awards.

Positive Effects of a Great Program

PLTW has impressive results across the country, to say the least. Bertram shared a story of what happened in a particular school as but one example of many. When girls at Hilliard Davidson High School in Hilliard, Ohio, were asked why they were not taking a course in engineering design, they said there was "no way" they were taking that class with the boys. When the class was offered as a girls-only class, the school filled three sections. Bertram said, "but here is what is fascinating about it. The next year all but two of those female students moved on to our second course of Principles of Engineering - with the boys." Girls also outperformed the boys, a fact which they are very proud of. The following year, over 40% of the students enrolled in the Introduction to Engineering Design class were girls. The girls-only classes only had to be offered one year to encourage a lasting change. Stated Bertram, "it only took one group of girls to break through and say 'yes, we can do this, and now we can do this with the boys.'"

Advocating for Engineering Education

Bertram sees strong and effective STEM education as critical to the health and welfare of the US population and its economy. "PLTW has changed our understanding of how STEM education, and engineering specifically, affect our entire global economy. He points out that it is at the foundation of everything we design. "Engineers build things, they solve problems, they develop and enhance technology, and give people tools to solve problems," said Bertram. He believes that the more we can help inform students, the more they will demand this type of skillset and STEM opportunities. As these educational changes continue, students in K-12 will also be exposed to the information, allowing PLTW not only to shape education in K-12, but also to help transform higher education, according to Bertram. "Because we are going to have students with better skills, awareness, and understanding, they are going to expect more and this may lead to accelerated journeys through higher education."

Changing the National Conversation

Bertram believes learning must be made more relevant for students. National Academy of Engineering initiatives such as Changing the Conversation and Engineering Grand Challenges play a significant role in helping and in encouraging women to pursue engineering opportunities, according to Bertram. He believes they encourage a new national conversation. "Too often we have taught math and science in isolation and toward taking a test as opposed to solving real world problems," says Bertram, "and solving real world problems is what we do in PLTW." He believes giving students real problems and activities in which they have to apply math and science helps them understand the relevancy of the disciplines. As Bertram puts it: "Do students get interested in mechanical engineering or do they get interested in solving problems in which mechanical engineering just happens to be what you need to solve that problem?" If students become interested in energy or the environment or world hunger, it is possible to provide them with opportunities to understand the kind of skills necessary to solve those problems, thus making a desired skillset the goal that addresses their curiosity and gets them excited about learning. Bertram believes if the skillset drives the education, and therefore the degree, it will be more successful than degree-seeking without the understanding or interest in solving problems.

The way in which math scores alone identify students for engineering is changing. Student interest in engineering should be used to help identify specific opportunities, according to Bertram. "Such changes will create a stronger connection in K-12 education and in the workforce," he asserts. This new way of identifying and attracting engineering students will help students become innovators and nurture an entrepreneurial mindset in an environment where there is currently an underrepresentation of women. Bertram believes "if we can leverage their natural curiosity and give them tools, then we believe we can fundamentally change the course of education."

What will it take to really allow change?

Bertram has observed that the girls who take PLTW do very well and often outperform their male peers.  But he believes stereotypes and biases are so pervasive in the United States educational system that there has to be intentional efforts to eliminate them and give girls opportunities. Bertram uses a sports analogy to elaborate. He says, "In sports, schools have had civil rights actions demanding girls be given the same rights and opportunities in athletics as boys. Why is this not happening today in STEM education?" He points out that some believe girls are just not interested in STEM fields, but really it is a combination of low expectations, lack of opportunity, and lack of encouragement. The Hilliard example supports this belief. Innovative ways must be developed to make STEM more attractive and demystify math and science. Bertram sees the big challenge as being how to reach all students, because PLTW is very interested in providing broad access to give all children opportunities for a great education and access to high quality programs, regardless of gender.

Bertram stresses the need for urgency in STEM education reform. "From my perspective, our biggest challenge is a race against time. Every day, every year, another generation of students goes through the system without this type of opportunity and experience," stated Bertram. It was the same thing when PLTW was introduced into elementary school programs; the programs couldn't get there fast enough to help build and nurture the curiosity of those students. "This isn't an indictment on education," says Bertram, "but I believe it is absolutely true. Students enter school with a natural curiosity; they like to play and they like to explore. When they get to school, we teach them how to comply." Bertram asserts that we teach them "how to do school," and not real life. PLTW is suggesting a different approach. Schools can be a place of curiosity and where one can question, think, and explore, rather than simply memorize and comply.

Working Together to Advance the Mission 

When asked how PLTW and WEPAN might work together to advance women in STEM opportunities, Bertram displayed an interest in PLTW partnering in some way since "we are both working in the same space to solve the same problem." Identifying model programs is important, and setting metrics for what a model program looks like must occur in order to measure success properly, explained Bertram. He hopes that through annual conferences or similar venues, PLTW and WEPAN can together inspire more students and attract them to engineering. He firmly believes that "we are not going to inspire more students to think about their place in the workforce or even college unless we are inspiring them in kindergarten, first, and second grade." Bertram and PLTW will continue to try to reach as many students and educators as possible, along with driving the changing conversations, in order to help create the changes we all work towards.

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