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‘More creativity and divergent thinking’

15-year Module facilitator and his students in Placentia, CA, middle school embrace STEM Expeditions®

Published February 6, 2017

PLACENTIA, CA – The most recent Pitsco curriculum upgrade in Robert McLeish’s lab was noticeably different from the others he’d experienced during the previous 15 years. In fact, switching from Modules to STEM Expeditions® was pretty much like starting over with all new content, but high student engagement and strong career connections continued to be the prevailing outcome.

McLeish, a 42-year teaching veteran, needed about two months of transition before he could accurately evaluate the new STEM Expeditions program. “In the Modules, everyone did the same thing – they made the same thing on the same days. There was not as much creativity in the rotational Modules. Some of the activities that we did were great activities. Applied Physics was just stellar in the way things were done and kids could see what was happening,” he explained. “But in Expeditions there’s more creativity and divergent thinking going on, more troubleshooting, more real-world activities. Those are the things I’m seeing in Expeditions.”

Because he teaches both seventh and eighth graders in the popular elective technology education course, he asked eighth graders in their second year with the Pitsco program which one they preferred – Modules or Expeditions.

“They had very good comments. Some of them were along the lines of, ‘I like that it’s more flexible in the learning process,’ and ‘I like that we can choose to have a different outcome than our partner or different activity than our partner,’” McLeish said. “Overwhelmingly, they chose Expeditions.”


One of the most notable differences with the Expeditions program is that each topic begins with an overarching Essential Question that serves as a focal point throughout students’ journey from destination to destination.

For example, in Making Waves, “It says that you’re going to make a tunable instrument, so if you’re going to make a tunable instrument, you have to pay attention to the whole Expedition,” McLeish said. “What is a tunable instrument? That’s what you’re heading for. You need to pay attention and focus so you have that at the back of your mind as you go through; you know what your final product is going to be. That’s helpful to students to make sure they look down that road. That makes them have a focus throughout the whole piece.”

Another component of Expeditions that is an optional program add-on is zSpace, a virtual reality simulation program that deepens students’ experience in select Expedition topics. For example, in the Electric Tech Expedition, students build parallel and series circuits in a 3-D environment and then watch the electrons flow.

McLeish said one of his students asked to do the culminating challenge in Electric Tech using zSpace instead of the suggested materials, and the teacher happily said yes. “He put together this wonderful piece with transformers and lights and switches and everything, and he did the challenge better than if he had to put it out the other way,” McLeish said. “So, the zSpace in Electric Tech has worked out really well.”

McLeish is hopeful that the Expeditions program will spread to all middle schools in the Placentia-Yorba Linda Unified School District if the pilot program in his lab continues to show positive results. He also hopes to have more encounters like a recent exchange with the concerned mother of an eighth-grade student.

“She said, ‘My daughter comes to school for tech lab. I don’t know if they have that at the high school. What am I going to do to get her to go to a high school?’” McLeish recalled. “I hadn’t heard that one before, but we get comments like that all the time, and they make teaching in our particular areas rewarding and fulfilling.”

Learn more about McLeish’s program

Pitsco Lab Facilitator Robert McLeish aims to keep parents and all Placentia-Yorba Linda Unified School District patrons informed about his technology lab at Tuffree Middle School. Visit www.tuffree.org and watch the “Tech Lab” video on the homepage. Then go to McLeish’s personal page to learn even more.

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