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Design Focused High School Builds Tech Talent in Indianapolis

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By: Tom Vander Ark and Mary Ryerse

Indianapolis has a new tech talent pipeline. Created in partnership with Purdue University, Purdue Polytechnic High School (@PurduePolyHS) is engaging youth real-world design challenges.

Opened in 2017 with 137 freshmen, the priorities for the first year were to immerse students in big global design challenges and bring the city into the school. Compared to a typical school, the goals, learning, schedules, and partnerships are all very different.

Plans for Purdue Polytech were so compelling, they won a big grant from XQ before they opened. The actively engaged a motivated and connected community through the selection process.

Admissions is by lottery with a preference for local learners. Given the mission and relationship with Purdue, Polytech gets a very diverse group of applicants academically, culturally and socioeconomically.

Before launching Purdue Polytech, Scott Bess (below left) led Goodwill Education and the Excel Center, an innovative adult high school where he broke with tradition to promote learner success.

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Balancing Interest and Importance through Design Challenges

Curriculum Director Brad Weinstein said "it's really hard to align a sequence of projects to build critical knowledge, skills, and dispositions."

While acknowledging thousands of state standards, they've identified "power standards," the stuff that's really important. For example, in Algebra they have identified six big ideas; the same holds true for English and other areas schools have traditionally called "subjects" or "courses."

One of Purdue's hallmarks, however, is how they integrate demonstrations across content areas through the use of design challenges. Weinstein says, "If you ask our students what classes they are taking, they might be confused."

"We boil complexity to discrete questions you can fully address in a global design challenge," said Bess. "We try to be as mindful in authoring as possible."

In constructing projects, Weinstein said they balance what business partners want, what standards prioritize, and what students are interested in. They try to create exposure to important topics and skills and assess those things.

Challenges focus on big ideas and are grounded in science. An example of an agri-science challenge is "How do we prepare to feed 9.5 billion people by 2050?" Partnerships with organizations like the Indy Motor Speedway and Republic Airways lead to transportation-related questions. A partnership with Subaru led to a challenge around developing advanced manufacturing talent.

The Maker Way

At Polytech, they talk about the "The Maker Way," the set of expectations and standards that students and staff follow in school, in the community and through interactions with others.

     Motivated: students are self-driven, goal-oriented, exceeding expectations.
     Accountable: students are accountable for their own behaviors and actions.
     Knowledgeable: students learn and collaborate with peers and community partners.
     Encouraging: students inspire others through discussion and collaborative work.
     Respectful: students respect staff, community partners, peers and learning spaces.


One way this Maker Way is applied is through students and teachers co-creating a weekly schedule to include individual learning time and team projects.
To create these schedules, PPHS uses a locally developed learning management platform, CourseNetworking (founder Ali Jafari also developed Angel Learning and Epsilen). The platform includes a profile page that allows for 'non-traditional' processes such as cross-content standards and custom-built scheduling.

Students proudly wear Purdue gear and enjoy the modern warehouse environment, complete with a coffee shop, shared learning spaces and collaboration labs.

Translating to Tradition

While the approach is innovative, reporting and sharing currently requires translation. Purdue Polytechnic is finding ways to repackage badges into courses so they can publish progress on a traditional transcript.

Through any given design challenge, a student may earn multiple badges by demonstrating mastery of science standards, math standards and English standards. What ends up being transcripted as a "course" is really a collection of badges and is an integration of big ideas and applied skills. To better facilitate this process, Polytech is moving to badging system next year and is using the CourseNetworking portfolio.

One assurance Polytech grads are provided (so long as they meet a minimum ACT and GPA) is admission to Purdue University and confidence they are prepared to thrive there.

Screen Shot 2018-06-05 at 10.52.04 PM.png

What's Next at Polytech?

Purdue Polytech will spend year two in a downtown mall and then on to a permanent location in 2019-20 school year.

Scott Bess is already contemplating a network of a dozen schools with shared interest in high engagement STEM learning and business and university partnership.

With a strong team, an innovative model, and XQ support, Polytech is a school worth watching in the global shift to competency.

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The photos above were taken by Tom Vander Ark

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