Nikodym teaches Project Lead the Way to grades 7-12
By Steve Bowman
Editor, The Brentwood Spirit
“Where are we ever gonna use this?”
Years ago when Brian Nikodym taught math to middle schoolers, that’s the question his students asked him the most.
Though he still teaches, he never hears that question anymore. In fact, his job with the Brentwood School District was created to show students exactly how they can use math and science to create things — from a simple light-switch cover to a programmable robot to a material sorter for recycling.
“It’s a chance for them to see science and math in a different context, an application,” he said. “It’s very hands-on.”
Nikodym was hired by the district last school year to teach Project Lead the Way in grades 7 through 12. It’s a statewide and national initiative, backed by grants, to better educate students in science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM. He teaches eight semester-long classes in topics such as robotics, flight and space, and DNA and crime scene analysis.
Project Lead the Way combines the cerebral aspects of engineering with the hands-on element of shop class. In fact, some of the classes are taught by industrial technology teacher Jeff Heinrich.
“The district has finally incorporated the concepts of hands-on learning that they’ve been wanting to do for years,” said Heinrich, who has taught in Brentwood since 2004. “They’ve finally found the formula through Project Lead the Way.”
It’s exciting stuff. In Nikodym’s classroom he has a 3D printer that his students use to produce everything from key chains to robot parts for the high school’s robotics team.
There’s a band saw, a scroll saw and a drill press. There’s a structural stress analyzer, which determines the strength of an object.
Raise the lid on any of the couple of dozen bins and you’ll find trays with compartments holding hundreds of metal and plastic parts, sensors and motors for students to use in bringing life to their designs.
Sixth graders are using 3D software to design toys for cerebral palsy therapy.
Seventh graders in the automation robotics class sit at computers hooked up to electric motors that turn what look like skateboard wheels. They’re learning how to program commands to the motors.
High school students are building hydraulic lifts with what look like Erector Set parts. Senior Kelsey Krimmel is hunched over a motorized apparatus she has designed to raise and lower three amusement park gaits, with emergency open and emergency close buttons.
Out of the box
Project Lead the Way (PLTW) students all learn the same engineering concepts but must design their own solutions to problems. In one class, they’re taught 12 different mechanisms for changing motion, then are tasked with designing “grandma’s chair,” a lift to move a chair up and down a staircase.
“Everybody will build it a little differently,” said Nikodym, “but they all start with the same problem.”
To encourage innovation, reverse engineering is taught. Each student takes a different finished product — a toy car, a tennis racket, etc. — and disassembles it to see how it’s made. Then they must refine the design to improve what they see as a weakness.
Expanding to elementary schools
Project Lead the Way isn’t just specialized training for future engineers. Besides having two high school engineering classes, Nikodym teaches almost every sixth and seventh grader and half of the eighth grade. Heinrich teaches engineering design and next year will lead a class in computer-integrated manufacturing, funded by a grant from Toyota. A year-long computer science course will also be offered next year.
In addition, Theresa Reynolds is in her second year as the district’s Elementary Science Specialist. Last semester she trained Mark Twain and McGrath teachers in using the PLTW curriculum.
“We want to move students away from the textbook approach and toward actually doing science,” said Reynolds. “We looked at lots of different programs last summer and we found we really liked Project Lead the Way.”
From forest ranger to teacher
Nikodym is one of the more experienced PLTW instructors in the St. Louis area. He’s been teaching it for eight years — the past two for Brentwood and the previous six in the Ritenour School District, where he started the program. Now he’s a “master teacher,” leading summer courses for new PLTW teachers all over the U.S.
But he didn’t start out as a teacher. He earned a degree in forestry and worked for the U.S. Forest Service for nine months before 10 years as a computer programmer for the Department of Defense in St. Louis.
“It doesn’t make a whole lot of sense,” he said with a smile. “I went from a degree in forestry where I wanted to be outdoors to a job in a building with no windows at the Defense Department.”
From Nikodym’s windowless office at the DOD he decided he wanted to teach, so he returned to school and earned a certification. Though originally intending to be a math instructor, he accepted an offer to teach computer science at Ritenour.
After 21 years there he heard that a PLTW program would be starting in Brentwood. The job opening had some big positives. He had enjoyed initiating the program at Ritenour. He’d get to teach in his daughter Julianna’s school while she was a senior. And he liked the shorter commute.
Brian and his wife Vicki Swyers have lived in Brentwood since 1988. Their daughter Kate is a senior at Butler University in Indianapolis, earning degrees in math and secondary education. Julianna is a freshman at Emory University in Atlanta.
Computer science on the way
Project Lead the Way has three pathways: engineering, computer science and biomedical. So far the school district has concentrated on engineering. Next year a two-semester computer science course will be offered. Also, Heinrich will teach computer integrated manufacturing, a class funded by a grant from Toyota. Nikodym will teach seventh graders about energy and the environment, focusing on sustainability and renewable energy.
“It’s a chance for them to see science and math in a different context, an application,” said Nikodym. … It’s a way to connect what they’re learning in their core classes in math and science to applications. I really love that part. When I did math, the most common question I heard was, ‘Where are we ever gonna use this?’ This is a perfect class to show that.”