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CA district goes all in with Expeditions

Upgrade from Modules, addition of elementary Missions among the STEM improvements

Published February 5, 2018

Additional Placentia-Yorba Linda (CA) USD articles:

PLACENTIA, CA – The numbers don’t lie. Upgrades and additions to the STEM curriculum from elementary through high school in Placentia-Yorba Linda Unified School District (PYLUSD) have yielded some promising results.

The indisputably positive numbers – made possible in part by a $6 million California Pathways Trust Grant – are the enrollment figures in the district’s new middle-level Pitsco STEM Expeditions® labs, which replaced the Pitsco Modules labs PYL students had used for more than a decade.

“There was a huge demand from incoming sixth graders, which is probably why I have two sections of sixth graders,” said Mary Chapluk, Expeditions lab facilitator and science teacher at Travis Ranch Middle School. “They all wanted to take STEM, which is why my classes are the biggest they’ve ever been. They’re maxed out.”

PYL Director of Innovation and Technology Cary Johnson said one of the grant’s primary aims is to increase participation in career technical education, so the southern California district’s game plan is working. Even better, enrollment among females in the Pitsco labs is increasing. At Tuffree Middle School, the number of females in STEM has doubled this year.

“We have some very very very talented young ladies, and sometimes we misdirect them by sending them to other classes rather than directing them to engineering,” said Tuffree Pitsco Lab Facilitator Robert McLeish. “Some of my best students this year in Rolling Robots with all the gears and mechanics are my young ladies, who are getting labeled gearheads because they’re doing so well in this program.”

The PYL STEM continuum starts at the elementary level where Pitsco Missions labs are stimulating deeper thought and understanding of science and engineering. The Pitsco Expeditions labs serve as an introduction for middle schoolers who get to experience and explore common career fields prior to deciding which pathway they want to pursue as freshmen. CareerLink Academies have been established at all five high schools, creating pathways in engineering, manufacturing, law, digital media arts, and culinary and hospitality, among others.

Johnson says the 21st-century skills students practice daily in the Missions and Expeditions, such as problem-solving, critical thinking, and collaboration, will position them to take on whatever challenges the future holds. (See Administrators’ Corner.)


Although happy with the Pitsco STEM Modules they had been using for years, PYL officials knew it was time to take the next step, so two of the six middle schools – Travis Ranch and Tuffree – were outfitted to pilot test the STEM Expeditions in 2016-17. Chapluk and McLeish put the program through its paces and quickly discovered more room for student creativity and more opportunities to problem-solve – all within timely and engaging career contexts. (See related article.)

“I said, ‘This is great! Definitely, we should roll it out to the other middle schools,’” Chapluk said. “I was very excited about the innovation. I feel like the Modules were more scripted and followed a recipe – do this and do this. And there wasn’t as much innovation or creativity. [Expeditions] are exactly what they should be. They are what NGSS is all about. There’s not any one answer per se. There’s more than one way to reach a solution.”

Yorba Linda Middle School Teacher Matt Homstad listened closely to what the pilot teachers were saying and, along with the other middle school Pitsco lab teachers, made the switch prior to the start of this school year. “I just jumped in and started investigating and obviously picked Rob’s brain and Mary’s brain, asking them questions,” Homstad said. “I’ve talked a lot with [Pitsco Education Program Designer] Aubrey too. She’s been a tremendous help.”


McLeish had spent 15 years facilitating Modules before he was asked to pilot test the Expeditions program. This switch to a new framework, new content, and a focus on the engineering design process required a shifting of mental gears.

“When Expeditions came in, I forgot that you have to give it time to make it a part of your program,” he said, adding that the way students embraced the new program and the chance to create their own solutions to problems was all the evidence he needed to see. “The kids love the creativity that is involved with it. They make improvements in all the Expeditions, so it’s always fun to see how they do that and the creativity that’s involved.”

Homstad, meanwhile, explained that the transition from Modules to Expeditions was relatively easier than a learning curve he had faced previously. “I felt a little overwhelmed in the beginning of the Modules a couple years ago when I first came in. That was definitely a lot harder than the transition to Expeditions.”


Every Expedition begins with an Essential Question that serves as the students’ focal point throughout the 10 to 15 class periods it takes to complete the work.

“It gives it a real-world component,” Homstad said. “Definitely, having that Essential Question makes it open ended with more than one solution. There’s no right or wrong answer. A lot of what they’re doing is observation. They’re just interpreting and they’re asking questions of each other.”

Chapluk, who like Homstad is a certified science teacher, appreciates the way Expeditions align with the requirements of NGSS. “It’s more depth and not as much breadth,” she said. “Let’s focus on this and let’s dive really really deep, and let’s do the whole engineering design cycle. . . . Let’s go ahead and design it, test it, and then if it’s not good enough, let’s go back and fix it and make it better. That’s really what science is about – not memorizing a bunch of facts.”


While Modules and Expeditions are both built to develop essential employability skills through hands-on, experiential learning, they are different in other ways, most notably the more flexible grading and implementation options for Expeditions.

Each student completes a detailed logbook while experiencing an Expedition, which is in addition to online assessments tracked through the Synergy ITC® learning management system.

“I let them use the logbook on the test. I encourage them to write notes all the time,” Homstad said. “It’s a great piece of evidence of learning, especially when they’re going home a little discouraged after the posttest, but they have these logbooks that are full of observation and hypothesis.”

Teachers also have a choice for content delivery – rotational (student pairs work on a diverse set of different topics throughout the lab) or whole class (all student pairs work on a single topic at the same time). Or, there’s the option to switch between rotational and whole-class Expeditions.

Chapluk is taking this hybrid approach this spring after a year and a half of strictly rotational delivery. She looks forward to having the flexibility to interject additional content or examples to the entire class when students are all at the same point within the Expedition.

Homstad, however, prefers to stick with a rotational approach for his 18 different Expeditions that have up to 36 students focused on a wide variety of STEM topics, from Ahead of the Game to Urban Wind Farm.

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