Recently, I had the chance to visit a public secondary school focused on engineering, health, and medicine just outside of Portland, Ore.
Health and Science School, or HS2, uses curricula from Project Lead the Way, a precollegiate STEM program now being implemented in about 5,000 K-12 schools.
While many STEM schools focus on serving gifted students (including a residential one in Illinois I wrote about here), HS2 principal Steve Day said a major goal of his school is to get more students who are typically underrepresented in STEM fieldsi.e., Hispanic and black students, those from low-income homes, and femalesinterested in science and math. The school, which has 700 students in grades 6-12, is open to any student in the Beaverton, Ore., school district with an interest in STEM.
According to Mr. Day, all 9th grade students at HS2 take an engineering course, "so if they choose otherwise [for later courses], they know what they're not choosing." Last month I wrote about a study finding that many students who said they were interested in pursuing a STEM career did not demonstrate a genuine interest in STEM-type taskswhich could mean they often don't know what science and math jobs entail. Mr. Day's efforts, it seems, are aimed at preventing this situation.
I stopped into a 10th grade engineering class where students were finishing up building machines that sort marbles by color, using both hardware (including building blocks) and computer software. The final products were an impressive array of different shapes, sizes, and construction styles. The teacher, James Baker, told me he had not shown any examples before the students began creating their own machines. I found this surprisingmany teachers consider modeling a critical component of a lesson planand asked Mr. Baker about his reasoning. "You can't unlearn," he said. "It's like telling them, 'I want you to think about anything but a polar bear eating ice cream.'" (Fair enough!)
While there, I also popped by a biomedical class called Human Body Systems. Just days before, Oregon had become the 10th state to adopt the Next Generation Science Standards, so I asked the teacher there how she felt about the change. The Project Lead the Way courses, said Denise Farrell, "were ahead of the game. They met everything in the Next Generation Science Standards and match perfectly. ... [The adoption] actually made life easier for us."