“My goal is to ensure that every child in America has access to PLTW,” said Ball State alumnus Dr. Vince Bertram. PLTW stands for Project Lead The Way, the nation’s leading provider of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) curriculum for Grades K-12.
As president and chief executive officer of PLTW since 2011, he has led the Indianapolis-based nonprofit through exponential growth. More than 10,500 elementary, middle and high schools in all 50 states and the District of Columbia offer PLTW programs.
“We focus on making learning relevant for students,” he said. “They must understand the importance of math and science and how it applies to the real world.”
Among many accolades, Dr. Bertram received an honorary doctorate in engineering from the Milwaukee School of Engineering and was named a Distinguished Hoosier by then-Governor Mitch Daniels. In 2014, the U.S. Department of State named him an education expert for its U.S. Speaker and Specialist Program, and he has served on the Indiana State Board of Education since 2015.
At Ball State, he received his bachelor’s in 1991 and went on to earn MAE, EdS and EdD degrees from the University’s Teachers College. He also holds a master’s in education policy and management from Harvard University, and MBA degrees from Georgetown University and ESADE Business School in Spain.
It was at Ball State that Dr. Bertram learned to appreciate education’s transformative power. He’s since shared that power with ever-widening circles of young people: first as a teacher and coach, next as a principal, then as superintendent of Indiana’s third-largest urban school district and now leading PLTW.
He has written two best-selling books: “One Nation Under Taught: Solving America’s Science, Technology, Engineering and Math Crisis” and “Dream Differently: Candid Advice for America’s Students.”
In the fall, Dr. Bertram received the Ball State University Alumni Association’s Distinguished Alumni Award, its highest honor. He took time to share his thoughts on why he feels effective teaching of STEM skills is vital for the future and how PLTW’s approach can “improve education in our country and change the way teachers teach and students learn.”
What was your early life like?
All of my childhood was spent in Henry County (Indiana). My younger sister and I started school in New Castle Community Schools and then moved to Blue River Valley (BRV). I graduated from BRV in 1986.
My parents divorced when I was in middle school. It was difficult for my mother, who had dropped out of high school, but she went back to school and earned certifications, developed skills and was able to hold meaningful work. It was hard making ends meet, but she worked at it, and I learned so much from her.
That experience helped me develop empathy for people who face similar challenges. And I know what I experienced doesn’t come close to what so many kids face today. I was also very fortunate that I had teachers and people in our community who believed in me and gave guidance and support.
When did you realize that education was a means to achieve and have a better life?
I don’t think that happened until I got to Ball State. I knew I wanted to teach and coach. I had coached basketball, even in high school, and it inspired me to pursue teaching as a career. I was on the coaching staff here, and during the ’89-’90 season, I was fortunate to be an assistant coach for Dick Hunsaker when Ball State competed in the Sweet 16. It was the catalyst for my career.
I eventually discovered that it wasn’t basketball that I loved. It was helping kids. That’s when it became clear that education wasn’t something just for me to have but something to share, to use to inspire others.
My career is focused on finding ways to provide that inspiration for children through educational experiences, to help them understand the importance of education and hopefully to inspire them to go on, do great things and have great careers and lives.
It was the Ball State experience that helped me understand the transformational power of education.
How has PLTW grown under your leadership?
We are experiencing exponential growth. When I started in 2011, we had 30 team members, programs in 2,500 schools and about 300,000 students. We offered high school engineering and biomedical science programs, and a middle-school gateway program.
We have since added a computer science program and an elementary program — today we have programs in nearly 11,000 schools with millions of students, and we are training more than 10,000 teachers each year. We have over 200 team members at PLTW and have grown from an $8.5 million organization to over $75 million.
How do you account for this growth?
One reason is that we’ve been successful in helping people understand the need to offer real and meaningful educational experiences. We cannot expect students to be inspired to learn third-grade math because they are going to have a test at the end of the year. We cannot test our students to excellence; we have to inspire them.
We have to make learning relevant by connecting it to career goals and real-world examples. They have to understand that what they’re learning in mathematics applies to the real world and to their future.
Another reason is we’re getting compelling results. Several studies by universities and other groups have consistently shown that PLTW students significantly outperform their non-PLTW counterparts, and they perform remarkably well in college and careers. It has been exciting to hear from universities and companies that actively recruit PLTW students.
How do PLTW programs differ from traditional STEM coursework?
We develop activity, problem-based (APB) curriculum, and we train teachers to design effective APB classrooms. For instance, rather than simply trying to solve a math equation, students apply math to design a bridge.
There’s not one answer to most real-world problems. How many different ways are there to build a bridge or a chair or a house? We’re trying to teach students that perspective at a very early age, as early as preschool. They learn the design process and how to solve problems, think critically, collaborate and communicate effectively — and when they do, the world opens up to them.
As I wrote in my last book (“Dream Differently”), I’m not pushing students toward STEM careers. But if you go to college and believe you’re not good at math and science, many career paths are simply closed to you.
Does PLTW work in different kinds of school settings?
We are particularly proud that PLTW can be found working in every type of school: public, private, public charter, urban, suburban, rural, low-income and affluent. It’s for all students.
We are in schools on the Yakama Indian Reservation, for example, which at one time was listed as a dropout factory. Now it’s one of the highest performing schools in Washington state.
They credit PLTW. I credit their leadership, because they refused to have low expectations for their students. They said, ‘We’re going to give you a really challenging curriculum. We’re going to put PLTW in all grades, and we are going to push you and support you.’
We’re in about a fourth of all school districts in the U.S. right now. We still have three-quarters we’re not in, so we’re focused on that a lot. But we’ve penetrated many of the largest districts. And we have chosen to go where it’s hard — where kids need us the most.
We have to break down barriers and do everything possible to ensure students have access to PLTW. As an organization, we must be open to the idea that we may be the barrier. We must innovate and be willing to challenge our own structures and requirements.
Throughout your career, you’ve stayed in touch with Ball State. What are your impressions of the University today and where it’s going in the future?
I’m very impressed with President Mearns and the overall leadership of the University. There is a vision for Ball State’s role in our local community and how we can be an economic driver for our state and have influence on a national level.
We have programs that rank among the best in the world, and I want others to hear the message: that Ball State is a place where you can get a great education and be empowered to go solve some of the world’s most vexing problems in many areas.
I am incredibly proud of Ball State — and I’m even more proud today than perhaps I was as an undergrad. It was a place where people believed in me, inspired me and didn’t set limits, but rather exposed me to a world of possibilities. It’s no coincidence that I have dedicated my entire life to education, and it’s because of what Ball State gave me that has allowed me to do the work I’m doing today.